Federal Diary: Federalizing security contactors might make our country safer

A DEA employee at the Energy Department's Training Center.
A DEA employee at the Energy Department's Training Center. (Courtesy Of The Department Of Energy)
By Joe Davidson
Friday, January 29, 2010

It should be a no-brainer to declare certain duties "inherently governmental" work that is restricted to federal employees, rather than outside contractors. Guarding Uncle Sam's nuclear goodies would seem to fall squarely in that category.

But a draft Government Accountability Office report shows just how difficult converting contract workers to federal employees can be and provides a lesson for the Obama administration, which is considering plans to bring some outside jobs back into the government.

The report examines the complex situation involving security at six Energy Department sites with "special nuclear material." The sites themselves are run by outside contractors, but that's another story.

The material is special because it's so dangerous. It's the department's highest security risk. The plutonium and highly enriched uranium is used in nuclear weapons and also can be formed into a dirty bomb. The potential for sabotage cannot be ignored.

The question is, what is the best way for Sam to protect the material?

It's a question that has been examined in one report after another since 1992.

"It's about time that DOE fixes this problem," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "It has been studied to death. . . . If DOE doesn't solve the problem satisfactorily, then the guard forces should be federalized."

GAO doesn't tell Energy what to do but does say that Energy Secretary Steven Chu should "promptly develop implementation plans . . . to improve career longevity and retirement options," including federalization, for security officers.

While federalizing the force isn't the only option, one argument for it stands out: Federal workers can't strike.

That's not the case with the contractors, who are unionized. There was a 44-day strike at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Tex., in 2007. Striking can be an honorable and useful tool for workers, but not when they're guarding deadly goods.

"Unionized protective forces can strike when their collective bargaining agreement ends and may create security vulnerabilities at DOE's sites," says the report, which is scheduled to be released next week.

But the problems go deeper than that and demonstrate why the title of the report is "DOE Needs to Address Protective Forces' Personnel." "Contractor protective forces -- including 2,339 unionized officers and their 376 nonunionized supervisors -- are not uniformly managed, organized, staffed, trained, equipped, or compensated across the six DOE sites," GAO says. "These differences occur because protective forces operate under separate contracts and collective bargaining agreements at each site." Four companies provide protective services at the six sites in the GAO study.

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