WASHINGTON -- The agency entrusted with protecting the US homeland is having difficulty safeguarding its own headquarters, private security guards at the complex allege.
The guards have taken their concerns to Congress, describing inadequate training, failed security tests, and slow or confused reactions to bomb threats and biological threats.
For instance, when an envelope with suspicious powder was opened last fall at Homeland Security headquarters, guards said, they watched in amazement as superiors carried it past the office of Secretary Michael Chertoff, took it outside, and then shook it outside Chertoff's window without evacuating people nearby.
The scare, caused by white powder that proved to be harmless, ''stands as one glaring example" of the agency's security problems, said Derrick Daniels, one of the first guards to respond to the incident.
''I had never previously been given training . . . describing how to respond to a possible chemical attack," Daniels said in an interview. ''I wouldn't feel safe . . . on this compound as an officer."
Daniels was employed until last fall by Wackenhut Services Inc., the private security firm that guards Department of Homeland Security headquarters in a residential area of Washington. The company has been criticized for its work at nuclear facilities and transporting nuclear weapons.
Homeland Security officials say they have little control over Wackenhut's training of guards but plan to improve that with a new contract. The department said the suspicious powder incident was not a grave problem because the mail had already been irradiated.
Wackenhut's president, Dave Foley, disputed the guards' allegations of faulty preparedness but declined to address any of the whistle-blowers.
Two senators who fielded complaints from several Wackenhut employees are asking Homeland Security's inspector general to investigate. The IG's office had no response to the request.
''If the allegations brought forward by the whistle-blowers are correct, they represent both a security threat and a waste of taxpayer dollars," wrote the two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon. ''It would be ironic, to say the least, if DHS were unable to secure its own headquarters."
Daniels left Wackenhut and now works security for another company at another federal building. He is among 14 current and former Wackenhut employees, mostly guards, who were interviewed by AP or submitted written statements to Congress.
Multiple problems were listed by the guards, whose pay ranges from $15.60 to $23 an hour based on their position and level of security clearance. Among their allegations:
Guards have no training in responding to attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
Chemical-sniffing dogs have been replaced with ineffective equipment that falsely indicates the presence of explosives.
Vehicle entrances to Homeland Security's complex are lightly guarded.
Guards with radios have trouble hearing each other, or have no radios, no baton, and no pepper spray, leaving them with few options beyond lethal force with their handguns.
Foley, Wackenhut's president, disputed the allegations, saying officers have a minimum of one year's security experience, proper security clearances, and training in vehicle screening, identification of personnel, handling of suspicious items, and emergency response.
''In short, we believe our security personnel have been properly trained, have responded correctly to the various incidents that have occurred . . . and that this facility is secure," he said.
Wackenhut is no stranger to criticism. Over the last two years, the Energy Department inspector general concluded that Wackenhut guards had thwarted simulated terrorist attacks at a nuclear lab only after they were tipped off to the test and that guards also had improperly handled the transport of nuclear and conventional weapons.
Homeland Security is based at a gated, former Navy campus in a college neighborhood, several miles from the busy streets that house the FBI, Capitol, Treasury Department, and White House.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle said Wackenhut guards are still operating under a contract signed with the Navy, and the agency has little control over their training. A soon-to-be-implemented replacement contract will impose new requirements on security guards, he said.