Should federal employees be screened when entering federal buildings?

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 20, 2013

For the Federal Protective Service, 2013 is ending much the way 2012 did — with another critical report about the agency’s oversight of contract guards who protect federal facilities.

The Government Accountability Office has issued 26 recommendations to the FPS since 2010, some of them repeated in the latest report, released at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

So many reports cover so much of the same territory, apparently because the FPS can’t get things right.

Of the 26 recommendations, only four are in the process of being resolved, leaving 22 open, Mark L. Goldstein, director of the GAO’s physical infrastructure team, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Our findings are as follows,” Goldstein said, in that formal, reserved yet sharp GAO way. “First, FPS faces challenges ensuring the contract guards have been properly trained and certified before being deployed to federal facilities around the country.”

Facing “challenges” is the GAO’s way of saying the FPS has significant problems in protecting the 9,600 federal facilities under its charge. The facilities are used by 1.4 million people daily.

FPS Director L. Eric Patterson defended his agency as best he could. “Significant progress,” he said, has “recently been made toward closing long-standing GAO recommendations.”

Although federal facilities are generally safe, security procedures have been an issue for years. The matter took on increased urgency after the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September left 13 dead, including the gunman, Aaron Alexis, a Defense Department contractor.

Alexis was able to walk into the building with a rifle undetected. That was not a lapse. He had a security clearance. Like other federal employees and contractors, he was allowed to enter his workplace without being screened.

The security clearance process remains a concern on Capitol Hill, and Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) raised another concern, or at least a question, one that could have significant implications for the way federal employees go about their daily work lives.

“Do you believe we should consider screening employees as well as visitors at federal facilities?” he asked a panel of witnesses. “Second, is there any potential downside to screening employees?”

Patterson and other government witnesses did not endorse screening employees the same way visitors are screened.

“We believe that the individual that has received that background investigation is trustworthy,” Patterson said. That wasn’t the case for Alexis.

Stephen Lewis, Defense Department deputy director for personnel, industrial and physical security policy, said “screening every single employee would be disruptive to getting the work done.”

Caitlin Durkovich, an assistant secretary in the Homeland Security Department, said the government should continue to trust in the system.

“I think that the system that we have in place works overall,” Durkovich said.

Carper didn’t answer his own question as members of Congress so often do at hearings, so his thinking on the subject isn’t known. But he did say: “It’s only natural that we wonder if all people entering a federal facility, even employees, should be screened in some way. Should we — to borrow an often-used phrase from Ronald Reagan — trust but verify?”

One system that is not working, the GAO says, is the FPS’s oversight of its contractor guard force. “GAO was unable to determine the extent to which FPS’s guards have received active-shooter response and screener training,” says Goldstein’s report to the committee, “in part, because FPS lacks a comprehensive and reliable system for guard oversight.”

The agency “is not assessing risks at federal facilities in a manner consistent with federal standards,” the report added, and “has limited knowledge of the risks facing about 9,600 federal facilities around the country.”

Patterson sought to assure senators that “the Federal Protective Service is committed to providing safety, security and a sense of well-being to thousands of federal employees who work and conduct business in these facilities each day.”

He said the agency takes safety concerns “very seriously,” adding, “It may not come across that way in some of the testimony that we’re providing.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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