WASHINGTON – The era of terror has spawned a new “status symbol” in the nation’s capital: bodyguards.

If you don’t have them, you’re not considered important, say career federal employees who find the post-Sept. 11 trend both amusing and disturbing.

Even the low-profile director of the relatively small, 3,600-employee Office of Personnel Management now has a protective detail.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, moreover, is protected by a phalanx of guards armed with MP-5 submachine guns, a weapon used by the president’s Secret Service detail.

“It’s crazy,” said a veteran U.S. official now involved in homeland security.

In the past, protective detail for Cabinet members was limited to overseas travel. And bodyguards were armed with merely handguns, such as the .357 Magnum or 9mm Sig-Sauer.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s security detail also is heavily armed, which is ironic considering Mineta opposed arming pilots after the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is expected to get a full Secret Service detail like the president.

Bush administration officials say the added personnel security is a response to recent threats from al-Qaida. They say assassinations and kidnappings of top U.S. officials are among planned attacks.

All federal agencies have back-up sites where top officials can go in the event of an attack on Washington, but that won’t protect them if they are individually targeted by terrorists, Bush officials say.

But career officials say some agency heads, such as Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, are reassigning armed criminal agents in their inspector general’s offices to bodyguard duty in possible violation of the Inspector General Act of 1978.

“The IG act only authorized investigation and audit for fraud, waste and abuse, not dignitary protection,” said one official. “Those agents have no legal authority to protect anyone.”

Other agency heads, such as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, tap their bodyguards from their departments’ offices of security.

FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, meantime, has a detail of deputy U.S. Marshals, who also provide protection for the U.S. drug czar.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld uses agents from the Army Criminal Investigative Division, which raises questions about enlisted military personnel doing civilian law-enforcement duties in the protection of a civilian.

Career officials say the recent assignment of heavily armed bodyguards in many cases has more to do with image enhancement than protection.

“Having a protective detail is the new status symbol in town,” an Interior Department official who requested anonymity said. “You don’t look important unless you have one.”

Said another official, who works for the new Homeland Security Department: “It is a fact that a detail is very prestigious now in Washington.”

OPM Director Kay Coles James

Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James recently was assigned a protective detail. “She is taken care of 24-7,” said OPM spokesman Scott Hatch, who declined to elaborate.

Some homeland-security officials wonder if it’s not overkill.

“I don’t think the director of OPM is one of the leaders in Osama bin Laden’s cross hairs,” said one official who asked to go unnamed.

But Hatch pointed out that in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the capital, it would fall to James to determine for the president the “operational status of government,” based on an assessment of personnel who would be available to run the various agencies. She also would work closely with the head of the General Services Administration, which manages government buildings, he said.

Space cops

Some also worry that by going overboard on new security measures, top politicos may be unwittingly setting up a police state.

“We’re going to have a huge police-state infrastructure, one we probably won’t be able to get rid of even after al-Qaida,” said the Interior official.

Officials cite, for example, a provision in the recently signed Homeland Security Act that gives broad new policing powers to inspectors general. IGs are appointed by the president.

Even the obscure National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has started a wide-ranging security program.

The National Security Safeguards Program was implemented last May “to protect NOAA against espionage, sabotage and foreign or domestic terrorism, as well as threats by foreign powers, organizations or persons directed toward personnel, facilities, operations, or administratively controlled, export-controlled, national security classified or proprietary information,” said Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, in a law-enforcement sensitive memo obtained by WorldNetDaily.

“Initially this program will focus on implementing a comprehensive Visit Request System, conducting threat awareness training, responding to suspicious incident reports, and reviewing and overseeing NOAA’s security clearance program,” Lautenbacher added in the May 28 memo.

The program included a proposal for so-called “space cops,” armed with guns, to monitor private operation and use of the nation’s satellites through NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service office.

But the plan has since been abandoned, Commerce Department sources say.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.