GAO: Federal Protective Service 'In Crisis'

Preliminary findings of a Government Accountability Office sting operation, formally revealed today, expose lax security procedures conducted by the Federal Protective Service, the agency tasked with guarding more than one million federal workers at 9,000 federal buildings nationwide. (See video produced by GAO above.)

"In all the years I’ve been hearing GAO reports, that’s about the broadest indictment of an agency of the federal government that I’ve heard and it’s not pleasant to hear it," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at a Senate hearing on the findings. "We’re obviously going to try to work together with the agency to improve its performance."

Lieberman said his Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee went public with the findings in an effort to quickly address serious concerns about the agency's performance. A full GAO report is expected later this summer, he said.

"I think we would be able to say that FPS is simply an agency in crisis," said Mark L. Goldstein, who led the GAO investigation. As The Eye first reported last night, Goldstein's team carried bomb-making materials into ten high-security federal buildings in the last year. The materials could be purchased at stores or on the Internet and cost roughly $150, Goldstein said. In only one instance did a security guard question a GAO investigator carrying suspicious materials.

"One of the concerns we had is that in a number of the locations, three or four of them, guards were not even looking at the screens that would show materials passing through. If a guard had been looking, they would have seen materials not normally brought into a federal building."

FPS follows Justice Department security guidelines that classify federal facilities into five categories. The fifth and highest level includes the White House and CIA headquarters. Goldstein's team entered Level 4 facilities that house more than 450 federal employees and offices for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State. The buildings also house government agencies that permit unscheduled visits, including the Social Security Administration or Internal Revenue Services.

Most of the concerns surrounding FPS center on money and manpower. The agency draws most of its revenue from the tenants of federal buildings, who pay it for the protection on a per-square foot basis. FPS has 1,236 full-time employees and employs approximately 15,000 contract guards. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Homeland Security committee's ranking Republican, wants the government to better determine the agency's future use of private security guards.

“We taxpayers are simply not receiving the security we paid for and the security we expect FPS to provide," she said.

FPS Director Gary W. Schenkel told lawmakers that “It’s purely a lack of oversight on our part."

“We were fairly distracted in previous years, for a number of reasons, none of them valid at this point -- but we realize that our core mission is to protect federal buildings," Schenkel said. The agency could not properly manage its contracts with private security firms and has suffered from a lack of money and manpower since it was moved to Homeland Security in 2003, he noted.

Today's findings come as no surprise to FPS union leaders, who were some of the first to raise the concerns with GAO.

"I guess if I had to name the route cause, we’re doing security for lack of a better word, on the cheap," said David Wright, president of AFGE Local 918, which represents FPS' security and police officers. His members have little time for actual law enforcement duties since they're also required to perform administrative tasks, including lengthy security assessments of facilities.

"We are law enforcement officers, we respond to incidents, we take control when we have to, but the overwhelming control of our duties are administrative in nature," Wright said.

Lieberman said his committee will introduce bipartisan legislation to reauthorize FPS and account for the GAO findings. He asked Schenkel to provide monthly updates to the panel.

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