The Federal Government Cannot Protect Itself

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Don Mason / Corbis

U.S. Government Accountability Office
Report on Security at Federal Buildings
22 Pages

The Gist:
You might think that federal buildings that house the Department of Justice or members of Congress would have decent security. Government facilities, after all, have proved to be tempting targets for both international terrorists (such as those who attacked the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001) and domestic assailants like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. But security at the government buildings guarded by the Federal Protective Service (FPS) is almost comically inept, according to a disturbing report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Over the past year, undercover investigators visited 10 supposedly high-security buildings in four cities and at each location were allowed inside with bombmaking ingredients. Investigators then walked into restrooms, assembled the devices and freely strolled around with explosives in their briefcases. The report found other instances of neglect — such as a guard who passed an infant through an X-ray scanner — and a pervasive indifference toward training and certification by the FPS, which protects about 9,000 federal facilities across the country (not including the most important buildings, such as the Capitol and White House). As the GAO's Mark Goldstein told lawmakers recently, "I think we would be able to say that FPS is simply an agency in crisis."

Highlight Reel:
1. The bombs: Amazingly, GAO investigators were able to smuggle in ingredients for low-cost improvised explosive devices and assemble them inside the government buildings with no trouble. Explosives were taken into facilities that included field offices for U.S Congressmen, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and other key agencies.

2. The baby: The report says an absentminded guard at an unidentified federal building sent a baby through an X-ray machine while the baby's mother was pulling out her identification. The guard was fired but subsequently sued the FPS, claiming he never received proper X-ray training. The FPS could not produce evidence of the training, and the guard won the lawsuit.

3. The guns: A box of semiautomatic handguns mailed to a federal building was not properly X-rayed at the building's loading dock and was allowed to be delivered.

4. Other issues with guards: FPS has had numerous problems with poorly trained or incompetent guards, many of them hired through the 67 private companies the agency contracts. Investigators found one armed guard asleep at his post after having taken the painkiller Percocet. Another guard was found using a government computer to work on his adult-website business, while another misbegotten guard accidentally fired his gun while he practiced drawing the weapon in a bathroom.

5. Training and certification: The report found that FPS is not providing guards with required training — one region hadn't offered mandatory courses since 2004. In addition, guards were found to have expired certifications in things like firearm and CPR training. Forty percent of the 191 guards at one high-level facility lacked current paperwork to demonstrate they had not been convicted of domestic violence — documents that are necessary to carry a gun legally.

The Lowdown:
Senator Joseph Lieberman called the GAO's findings "about the broadest indictment of an agency of the Federal Government that I've heard," and it's hard to disagree. The director of the FPS, which has a budget of about $1 billion, said a lack of money and manpower has hampered the organization and vowed to address the problems. It seems safe to guess that some improvement is on the way — after all, things can't get much worse. But along with weaknesses documented in the Transportation Security Administration, the report supports the notion that even in a post–Sept. 11 world, much of governmental security offers the appearance of protection rather than the real thing.

The Verdict: Read.