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Tests fault security at federal buildings

‘Serious’ flaws found by GAO

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press / July 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Federal investigators had no trouble smuggling bomb-making materials past ill-trained and poorly supervised guards at federal buildings, senators were told at a hearing yesterday.

“This is the broadest indictment of a federal agency I have ever heard,’’ Senator Joseph Lieberman said at a Homeland Security Committee hearing on the performance of the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for the safety of some 9,000 federal facilities. “This is really serious stuff.’’

The committee, chaired by the Connecticut independent, heard how Government Accountability Office investigators on 10 occasions carried the components for an improvised bomb through checkpoints monitored by Federal Protective Service guards. In all 10 cases, the materials went undetected.

Mark Goldstein, the Government Accountability Office’s director for physical infrastructure issues, said the investigators assembled the devices in restrooms and walked around with them in briefcases.

The devices, which Goldstein said contained actual bomb components but with concentrations below trigger points, were smuggled into 10 level IV facilities - buildings housing more than 450 employees with a high volume of public contact - in four major cities. They included offices of a US senator and representative, as well as agencies such as the departments of Homeland Security, State, and Justice.

“In this post-9/11 world that we are now living in, I cannot fathom how security breaches of this magnitude were allowed to occur,’’ Susan Collins of Maine, top Republican on the committee, said.

The Federal Protective Service, Goldstein concluded, “is an agency in crisis.’’ In addition to the smuggling operations, investigators cited examples of a night guard being found asleep after taking Percocet and a guard failing to recognize or properly X-ray a box containing handguns. One guard who was supposed to have been at his post was caught using government computers to manage an adult website.

The report also found that 411 of the 663 guards deployed to a federal facility had at least one expired firearm qualification, background check, domestic violence declaration, or CPR-first aid training certificate.

While the service requires guards to complete 128 hours of training, including eight hours of X-ray and metal detector, in one region the service had not provided it since 2004.

Gary Schenkel, the agency’s director, said that within three hours of receiving the study he had ordered regional directors to increase inspections and outline steps they would take to improve guard performance.

“It’s purely a lack of oversight on our part,’’ he said.

He said the that agency’s full-time workforce had decreased from 1,400 in 2003, when it became part of the new Department of Homeland Security, to 1,236 today, and that the agency had to reschedule training and equipment purchases to avoid greater cuts. The agency has a budget of about $1 billion and, in addition to full-time employees, uses about 13,000 contract security guards.

Schenkel said his office would also require more random searches of packages, increase oversight of contract guards, and carry out inspections of screening processes.