Federal building security: The hole in America’s homeland security safety net

Have you ever imagined smuggling a bomb into a federal building? Congress’ investigative arm, the Governmental Accountability Office has. Government investigators not only smuggled bomb components past private security guards and into ten high security federal buildings, they also assembled and transported the bombs throughout the buildings and exited undisturbed. These stunning failures spotlight the continuing vulnerability of even the highest security federal buildings in the nation. It is very possibly the largest hole in our nation' homeland security safety net.

No one can say we as a nation have not been warned.

Since the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the GAO has produced 16 separate reports and congressional testimonies detailing chronic management, performance and manpower problems at the Federal Protective Service, the agency charged with protecting federal properties. Among the failures the GAO reported was the discovery of human remains on FPS patrolled property and the use by a private security guard of an x-ray machine to scan an infant. Since 2003, according to our analysis, of the 34 recommendations GAO made to improve FPS, less than one-fifth have been implemented.

In the last two years, there have been eight violent attacks on federal property causing substantial property damage, injury and loss of life. In addition to the ‘Wild West’ shoot out at the Pentagon entrance last March, attacks and threats to federal buildings and employees in the first few months of 2010 alone have included:

January 2010: the FBI reported that nine envelopes containing powder and a threatening letter were sent to congressional offices in Alabama

January 2010: a gunman opened fire in the Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, killing a security officer

February, 2010: a small plane pilot crashed into the IRS building in Austin Texas, burning the building to the ground, killing an IRS employee and hospitalizing several others.

Congress needs to act now – during the lame duck session of Congress – to reform the FPS. Bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) has unanimously passed the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and is awaiting action on the Senate floor. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has introduced his own FPS Reform bill which could be voted on and reported to the House floor promptly. Both bills address many of the core issues identified by the GAO including the need for more law enforcement and private guard oversight personnel at FPS.

If a better reason to act quickly is needed, then lawmakers should consider that accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators are to stand trial in Federal Court in Manhattan. As of this moment, the agency in charge of security is the Federal Protective Service.

David Wright is president of the Federal Protective Service Union Local 918, American Federation of Government Employees.

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