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More evidence that the watchers need watching

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Feeling snug in your government building?

Before you get too comfortable, consider these incidents involving the Federal Protective Service (FPS), the agency responsible for safeguarding federal facilities, described in a Government Accountability Office report:

-- An infant in a carrier was placed on the moving belt of a security X-ray machine while the child's mother looked for identification. "Because the guard was not paying attention and the machine's safety features had been disabled, the infant in the carrier was sent through the X-ray machine."

-- An "armed guard was found asleep at his post after taking the pain killer prescription drug Percocet during the night shift."

-- In one region, the "FPS has not provided the required 8 hours of x-ray or magnetometer training to its 1,500 guards since 2004."

-- During a test of security procedures, a bag with a fake gun and knife went through an X-ray machine, and a guard failed to identify the weapons.

-- During a second test, a magnetometer and a hand wand detected a knife hidden on an official, but a guard failed to locate the knife and the official entered the facility.

These findings, from a September report, are in addition to the GAO's recent sting that showed that bomb-making materials could be smuggled into federal buildings right under guards' noses.

The GAO paints a scary picture of a federal agency that poorly supervises a security force largely composed of private guards. That supervision, or lack of it, is one point the House Committee on Homeland Security is set to take up at a Wednesday hearing on the FPS.

Another subject certain to arise is the overwhelming reliance on private contractors to protect federal facilities. There are about 15,000 private guards, compared with fewer than 1,000 federal law enforcement officers, in the FPS.

The appropriate balance of contract workers and federal employees is a matter of debate in many government venues. But clearly, there are times when protecting federal facilities is "inherently governmental" work -- the standard by which that balance should be judged.

Increasing the proportion of federal employees in the FPS security force is one option that committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is considering. "It's clear that the private contracting . . . has significant failures," he said in an interview. "It's clear to me that federal employees in the past have done a better job of securing federal buildings. When you start renting out security like the Federal Protective Service is doing, you potentially compromise a standard in law enforcement that can't be duplicated in the private sector."

Federal police officers protect the White House and the Pentagon, which are considered "Level 5" buildings on a five-point security scale. Facilities at the lower end of that scale, such as a Social Security or Agriculture Department office in a small city, are not as likely to be on anyone's target list and probably can do just fine with private guards, if those guards really are cheaper than federal employees -- and if they are properly trained.

The GAO said the FPS has made efforts to improve its oversight of the private guards, including "requiring its regions to conduct more guard inspections at level IV facilities and provide more x-ray and magnetometer training to inspectors and guards."

However, the report continues, the "FPS does not have a reliable system to track whether its 11 regions are completing these new requirements. Thus, FPS cannot say with certainty that the requirements are being implemented."

And the requirements for the contract guards are not always as stringent as those for federal employees. The FPS mandates that all contract security officers pass a rigorous firearms course annually, but its law enforcement officers train and qualify four times as often, according to testimony that Stephen Amitay, a legislative counsel with the National Association of Security Companies, prepared for the hearing.

Two Homeland Security Department officials who oversee the FPS said in submitted testimony that the agency responded quickly when it learned of security lapses. The first response they mentioned was (this being the government) the creation of a committee to study the problem. The agency also authorized overtime to increase guard post inspections and required guards to complete additional training in magnetometer and X-ray operations.

Amitay will remind the committee that it was a private security guard, Stephen T. Johns, who lost his life protecting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the June shooting. But he also indicated that with many private guards, who are employed by a variety of companies, you get what you pay for.

"The flaws and weaknesses in contractor performance found by the GAO expose a more fundamental issue," his testimony says: " 'quality versus cost.' "

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