GAO Reports Bomb-Making Materials Smuggled Past Guards in Federal Buildings

July 14, 2009
Some folks at the Federal Protection Service, the group charged with protecting federal buildings, are a little red in the face, following a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report outlining how investigators smuggled bomb-making materials into federal buildings. The investigators even assembled the “bombs” on the premises.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., moved quickly, announcing they are introducing legislation to set the FPS straight when it comes to fulfilling its mission of protecting 9,000 federal buildings around the country after federal investigators smuggled bomb-making materials past guards at 10 high security locations.

At a hearing before the committee, titled “Federal Protective Service: Time for Reform,” Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at GAO, told how investigators smuggled liquid bomb-making materials past FPS contract guards, made bombs in public restrooms and moved about the buildings undetected. GAO will produce a report later this summer detailing the agency’s failures to properly train guards, ensure that guard certifications are current and oversee guard performance.

“GAO has found that FPS is not doing anywhere near enough to make sure that its 15,000 or so private contract guards – the first line of defense at federal buildings -- are qualified and trained for their jobs, or are actually doing what they were hired to do,” Lieberman said. “As we approach the eighth anniversary of 9/11, and some 14 years after the bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City, it is outrageously unacceptable that the federal employees working within these buildings, and the citizens who pass through them, are still so utterly exposed to potential attack by terrorists or other violent people.”

Collins said the GAO findings uncovered “very serious and alarming gaps in our security” that need to be remedied immediately. The GAO findings indicate “a pervasive, systemic problem in federal building security. If the GAO inspectors had been successful in entering one or two federal buildings, then that would have been cause for concern. But 10 out of 10 times is egregious and illustrates a security crisis,” she said.

“We have an urgent problem,” Collins told Gary W. Schenkel, director of FPS. “The threat is here and present. We can’t be just `working toward solutions.’ We have to have solutions right now. It sounds like there’s no accountability in this whole system.”

Collins and Lieberman told the FPS chief to report back to them with his recommendations on how to immediately correct the situation.

Senators Lieberman, Collins, Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, plan to draft an FPS authorization bill that would give the Department of Homeland Security Secretary authorization to move the agency from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the National Protection and Programs Directorate within DHS, provide an initial increase in funding and require a long-term strategy for staffing and training.

The four senators originally asked GAO to investigate the Federal Protective Service in 2007 to determine if it was fulfilling its mission. GAO produced its first report last June and concluded that FPS lacked adequate financial and management practices, severely hampering its ability to perform its mission.

The second report will tell of how FPS contract guards are required to have more than 120 hours of training, including training on the operation of metal detectors and X-ray equipment but that in many cases, guards received no X-ray or metal detector training at all. FPS also requires guards to maintain certain certifications – for example in CPR, first aid and firearms training – and to provide proof that they have not been convicted of domestic violence. GAO found that 62 percent of FPS contract guards it reviewed lacked valid certifications in one or more of these areas.

The report further will describe how, after new guards were hired, FPS did little to ensure they complied with relevant rules and regulations. For example, the FPS did not conduct inspections of guard posts after regular business hours. But when GAO did, it discovered guards taking prescription medication while on duty and sleeping on an overnight shift. In another case, an inattentive guard allowed a baby to pass through an X-ray machine conveyor belt. That guard was fired, but he ultimately won a lawsuit against the FPS because the agency couldn’t document that he had received the required training.

FPS has begun work to close the vulnerabilities GAO documented.

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