By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009
It cost $150 and took about four minutes for government investigators, working in a sting operation, to make small bombs from materials they carried into high-security federal buildings that house major agencies with national security or law enforcement responsibilities.
The recent sting by the Government Accountability Office exposed lax security procedures by the Federal Protective Service, the agency tasked with guarding more than 1 million workers at 9,000 federal buildings nationwide.
Mark L. Goldstein, who led the investigation, told lawmakers that his team carried bombmaking materials into 10 high-security federal buildings in the past year. The materials could be purchased in stores or online and cost roughly $150. Once inside, investigators assembled bombs in restrooms and then walked around with them, undetected. In only one instance did a security guard question an investigator carrying suspicious materials.
"One of the concerns we had is that in a number of the locations, three or four of them, guards were not even looking at the screens that would show materials passing through. If a guard had been looking, they would have seen materials not normally brought into a federal building," Goldstein said.
"I think we would be able to say that FPS is simply an agency in crisis," he said later.
The GAO's final report will conclude that many contract guards employed by the Federal Protective Service (FPS) lacked at least one certification in CPR, first aid or firearms training or proof that they had not been convicted of domestic violence, according to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which heard preliminary conclusions yesterday. The report also found that many guards lacked proper training on the operation of metal detectors or X-ray equipment.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), said he wanted to publicize the initial findings in order to quickly address concerns about the agency's performance.
"In all the years I've been hearing GAO reports, that's about the broadest indictment of an agency of the federal government that I've heard, and it's not pleasant to hear it," Lieberman said.
Most of the concerns surrounding the FPS center on money and manpower. The agency draws revenue from the tenants of the federal buildings, most of which are owned or operated by the General Services Administration. The FPS has 1,236 full-time employees and employs approximately 13,000 private security guards on contract.
The FPS follows Justice Department security guidelines established after the 1993 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The highest security category, Level 5, is reserved for high-profile facilities not guarded by the FPS, including the White House and CIA headquarters. The GAO team entered 10 Level 4 facilities that house more than 450 federal employees and offices for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State. The buildings also house government agencies that permit unscheduled visits, including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
"It's purely a lack of oversight on our part," FPS Director Gary W. Schenkel told lawmakers. "We were fairly distracted in previous years, for a number of reasons, none of them valid at this point -- but we realize that our core mission is to protect federal buildings," he said. The agency could not properly manage its contracts with private security firms, he said, and has lacked money and manpower since it became part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2003.
Experts caution, however, that these types of GAO investigations foster a "gotcha" mentality.
"A lot of these reports have become political sideshows and political theatrics instead of instruments to improve," said George W. Foresman, a former Homeland Security undersecretary for preparedness who is now working as a private security consultant. He said the GAO should make such findings public only if an agency has repeatedly failed to address them.
Foresman also suggested the report shows that security measures can differ greatly beyond well-guarded Washington. "The further you are from the center point of the threat, the less secure you think you may need to be," he said.
Lieberman said his committee will introduce legislation to reauthorize the FPS, give it more funding and instruct Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to reorganize the agency while developing new staffing and training plans. The committee also asked Schenkel to provide monthly updates to the panel.
The findings come as no surprise to FPS union leaders, who have previously raised security concerns with the GAO.
"We're doing security for lack of a better word, on the cheap," said David Wright, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 918, which represents the agency's security and police officers. His members have little time for law enforcement duties, he said, since they are also required to perform administrative tasks.
"There are some individuals with workloads that you're rarely out on patrol and you're rarely answering calls for service," Wright said.