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Problems with security at federal buildings continue, GAO report finds

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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It is painfully easy to fool the protective force that guards Uncle Sam's real estate.

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This one nugget stands out among many disturbing facts in a report the Government Accountability Office released Tuesday: Guards allowed prohibited items -- such as guns, knives and bombs -- into federal facilities two-thirds of the time in tests conducted by the Federal Protective Service.

The testers used fake weapons, but the guards didn't know that. They also didn't know what to do when they managed to stop a tester who was trying to sneak in some contraband.

In one case, all the guards at an unnamed facility focused on an individual who was stopped with a fake gun, only to allow another FPS inspector to waltz through the security checkpoint unstopped, even though he was carrying two knives.

The problems with security at federal buildings have been a topic of GAO reports before. This latest document includes information similar to what the GAO previously reported, but that makes it no less troubling, and the issues bear repeating until the government gets building security right. The GAO prepared the current report for a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing Wednesday that will look at whether the FPS should be federalized.

"For most people, the contract guards are the face of the Federal Protective Service," said committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). "Unfortunately, that face has some disturbing features."

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plan to introduce legislation this month to reform the service.

Almost all of the people who guard federal buildings controlled by the General Services Administration are contractors. There are 15,000 contract guards and about 700 federal law enforcement officers in the FPS. The guards can detain troublemakers, but only law enforcement officers can make arrests.

But the FPS is in charge of managing the guards, and the agency has not done a stellar job of that. According to the GAO:

-- Some contractors didn't comply with the terms of their contracts, and the FPS took no action against them. The GAO said the agency did nothing to seven contract companies who employed guards with expired certification and training requirements.

-- The agency apparently can't determine which guards have complied with requirements because, the report says, "FPS currently does not have a fully reliable system for monitoring and verifying whether its 15,000 guards have the certifications and training to stand post at federal facilities."

-- The FPS doesn't always evaluate guards properly. Not only did the seven contractors escape any sanction for not fulfilling the terms of their contracts, but the FPS also gave them ratings of satisfactory or better.

-- The FPS hasn't provided some guards with the required training on X-ray or magnetometer machines that are used to detect weapons. In July 2009, the GAO reported that 1,500 guards had not received the 16 hours of required training. As of February, they still had not, according to the GAO, although the FPS says they will by December.

Just in time for the hearing, the Department of Homeland Security, the FPS's parent agency, announced new security standards for all federal buildings and facilities. The DHS said the standards will "address site, structural, interior and system security, as well as security operations and administration." The DHS also said a "Design-Basis Threat Report" will "inform these customizable standards with current threat-based intelligence."

The GAO reports provide strong ammunition for those who want to have federal law enforcement officers replace the guards. But the Obama administration has no plans to do that.

In his prepared statement, FPS Director Gary Schenkel said, "While we believe we can effectively secure federal buildings with the current mix of highly trained federal staff and contract guards, we have not ruled out the possibility of expanding our federal workforce to enhance the ability of our men and women to fulfill the FPS mission."

David Wright, president of the National Federal Protective Service Union, supports federalization, yet he acknowledged that would not be cheap -- "doing the right thing rarely is," his statement said.

But Wright said the risk is too high to rely on guards who are guided by companies whose top priority is to "increase profit to the shareholder."


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