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Senators criticize agency for security failures in federal facilities

The Federal Protective Service comes under fire after a government investigation details problems, including tests in which bomb-making materials went undetected.

July 09, 2009|Kristina Sherry

WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office told a congressional panel Wednesday that its investigators were able to carry bomb-making materials through 10 security checkpoints monitored by the Federal Protective Service, which guards nearly 9,000 facilities throughout the country.

According to preliminary findings in a GAO study, the investigators assembled the bomb components -- which were in concentrations low enough that they wouldn't explode -- in restrooms, put the devices in briefcases and walked freely around the buildings.

In some cases, the bathrooms were locked and building employees opened them.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, called the hearing after learning of the GAO's initial findings. He said the security lapses were "the broadest indictment of an agency of the federal government that I've heard."

The agency has 1,236 employees and more than 13,000 contracted security guards. The 67 private companies that employ those guards are responsible for their supervision, training and equipment.

Although the specifics were classified, the GAO said, the devices involved in the tests included two parts -- a liquid explosive and a low-yield detonator -- that could be purchased at stores or over the Internet for less than $150.

Investigators placed their briefcases on conveyor belts, but the guards and X-ray machines failed to detect anything suspicious, the GAO said. At three of the 10 security checkpoints tested, guards were not looking at the X-ray screens as the bomb-making materials passed through.

The tests were carried out in four cities in major metropolitan areas. Eight of the 10 buildings were government-owned. They included the district offices of a U.S. senator and a U.S. representative, as well as agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, of which the agency is a part, and the State and Justice departments. The tests were conducted in April and May, and only those 10 sites were tested.

The GAO would not identify the buildings or their locations publicly but said they were randomly selected "Level 4" facilities, which house more than 450 federal employees, have a high volume of public contact and could be considered a "likely target." Level 4 is second only to Level 5, which includes the White House and the CIA headquarters.

The GAO's full report is not expected until September. Among the initial findings:

* In one region, the agency has not provided the required eight hours of X-ray or magnetometer training to its 1,500 guards since 2004.

* In another region, 62% of contract guards had expired certifications in at least one of the following areas: weapons, CPR, first aid and baton use.

* At one high-security facility, an armed guard was found asleep at his post after taking the painkiller Percocet.

* In one major city, an improperly trained guard sent an infant in a carrier through an X-ray machine.

* A guard who was supposed to be standing watch was caught using government computers to further his for-profit adult website.

* A guard failed to recognize or did not properly X-ray a box containing handguns at the loading dock of a facility.

Gary Schenkel, director of the Federal Protective Service, accepted responsibility for the findings but noted challenges his agency had experienced since he arrived in 2007, including budget constraints.

He said the agency needed to be "much more involved" in standardizing its training procedures in all 50 states.

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ksherry@tribune.com

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