The National Park Service director told Congress on Wednesday that he had to shut down the open-air memorials on the Mall during the government shutdown because of terrorism, saying that closing them was the only way to protect them "in a post-9/11 world."
Director Jonathan B. Jarvis also said his agency had received intelligence showing an increased threat of danger since the shutdown began — though he would not tell two House committees what those warnings were.
In a contentious hearing, Republicans accused Mr. Jarvis of making the shutdown as painful as possible for Americans. Democrats countered that the Republicans bore the blame for the shutdown, and thus were responsible for the park closures that have spawned civil disobedience from some.
Mr. Jarvis said he made the shutdown decisions he thought were right.
"There's no politics involved here. This is just our responsibility to take care of the national park system with what resources we have," he said.
He said that meant shutting almost everything down at the beginning of the shutdown Oct. 1, and then seeing what could be reopened after that.
The Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, has signed agreements with six states that are paying the federal government to reopen parks within their borders. And Mr. Jarvis said he's also singled out about a dozen concessions and special park units that he has been able to reopen after he determined they weren't using federal money and wouldn't violate the shutdown.
Still, lawmakers said Mr. Jarvis should have been ready at the beginning of the shutdown.
"You waited till after Oct. 1, and then began, after you asserted pain on people through a lack of planning, you began planning so that a week, two weeks, three weeks after you had made your point that you could punish the American people by shutting down and taking away assets they cared about — then you began, because of public opinion, opening back up," said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which conducted the hearing along with the House Natural Resources Committee.
The closures on the capital's Mall became an early symbol of the government shutdown, particularly after veterans busted through barricades around the World War II Memorial on the first day.
Mr. Jarvis said he had instructed all monuments in the capital to allow folks in for First Amendment activities and said his rangers and police were told not to question visitors about their activities — which should have meant the parks were open.
But several lawmakers who were with veterans when they tried to gain access said things didn't work out that way.
"I get out there, sure enough there are barricades on the north entrance, the south entrance, and the entrance facing the road had barricades across and it had yellow tape woven in and out. They did not intend for anyone to cross that line, First Amendment or not," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.
Mr. Issa said the monuments on the Mall remained open during the 1995-1996 shutdowns, and wanted to know why Mr. Jarvis acted differently this time.
The director said the threat of terrorism makes things different.
"Even though the U.S. Park Police commissioned officers have been exempted from the furlough, given the limited staff resources during the shutdown, prudent and practical steps were taken to secure life and property at these national icons where security has become increasingly complex in a post-9/11 world," he says in his prepared testimony.
He later told Mr. Issa that the service's "intelligence indicates that there has been an uptick in activity — interest during the shutdown in potential threats."
Mr. Jarvis acknowledged he ran his closure plans by the White House, though he couldn't remember who he spoke with. He said the decisions were his, not the White House's.
Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican, said the closures have damaged Mr. Jarvis.
"Because of your actions, many Americans view you not as an advocate, but as an adversary," he said.
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