Federal Protective Service says security improved at government facilities

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The government agency responsible for protecting more than 9,000 federal facilities said Tuesday it has taken several steps to address security gaps first exposed in a government audit last year.

The Federal Protective Service has developed new training on X-ray machines and magnetometers for the almost 15,000 private security guards it employs, agency director Gary Schenkel told lawmakers. FPS officers have also reviewed the certifications of contract guards and increased spot inspections at guard posts, he said.

The changes come amid a recent wave of attacks at federal facilities across the country and follow a 2009 Government Accountability Office investigation that exposed serious security gaps at 10 major federal buildings. GAO investigators smuggled bomb-making materials into the buildings while photos and video showed private contract guards asleep at their posts and a young child passing through an X-ray machine in a baby carrier.

Buildings protected by the FPS house approximately 1.5 million federal workers and more than 500,000 visitors each day, according to the agency. The FPS made about 1,600 arrests, conducted more than 1,100 criminal investigations and confiscated more than 661,000 prohibited items at security checkpoints in fiscal 2009. Those prohibited items included brass knuckles, knives and some firearms, Schenkel said.

Despite recent reforms, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said FPS still needs to develop uniform security standards for all of its sites that could then be adapted to each location.

"Law-abiding citizens" visiting Washington may be unable to enter some downtown federal buildings to use the restroom or cafeteria because of unnecessarily stringent security plans developed by the FPS and building tenants, Norton said. Though federal officials representing those tenants may be highly qualified, they "don't know a hill of beans about federal security" and should not be consulted, she said.

Union officials complained that the FPS is poorly funded and understaffed as it works to protect federal workers.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said members who work for the Internal Revenue Service are especially concerned with lax security at taxpayer-assistance centers open to the public, especially after last month's plane crash at an IRS office in Texas.

David L. Wright, president of the union representing FPS officers, said the agency's insufficient funding has caused uncertain job security for his members and lax oversight of contract guards.

"I believe we are on borrowed time when it comes to this very large gap in our national homeland security safety net, and that time is running out," Wright said.

Lawmakers called the hearing after this month's shooting at the Pentagon, last month's IRS attack and a January shooting at the Las Vegas federal courthouse.

"Violence against federal workers and installations is never acceptable," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). "Those who, for cheap political pandering, find themselves justifying it most assuredly have the blood of its innocent victims . . . on their hands."

Though House members have no immediate plans for legislation, aides to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he plans to propose changes to the FPS next month.

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