"Clearly, this is very embarrassing, and very serious," says TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon. "The system is only as strong as its weakest link, and if perimeter guards aren't trained well enough to protect federal buildings, we're got a serious problem." While the GAO interlopers sidestepped the usual rounds of questioning by mimicking the bearing of law enforcement officials, there is no reason to think a sophisticated terrorist group couldn't do exactly the same, says Shannon sending an average-looking guy with an average-sounding accent and a reasonable facsimile of an ID into CIA headquarters, for example, with a briefcase full of biological weapons.
Officials claim the security fiasco isn't as bad as it sounds; they insist the intruders, who at one point were left unsupervised (still holding their briefcases) in the CIA building, were never in contact with any classified material. Only by choice, it would seem, when one considers that GAO agents were allowed to roam freely through the office suites of Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. And while neither official was present during this particular encroachment, their absence was due to luck, rather than security measures. Predictably, federal security officials claim that reports of the breaches have already sparked intensive procedural reviews, adding that any future tests would be met with a more vigorous line of defense a goal that could probably be met if everyone on the front lines of security simply stayed awake for an entire shift.