July 8, 2009 -- Federal buildings are virtually unprotected from terrorist attacks, an undercover government investigation has found.
Undercover agents from the Government Accountability Office were able to smuggle liquid bombmaking materials into all ten federal buildings around the United States they tested, according to testimony before a Senate panel Wednesday morning.
Once inside the buildings, the agents assembled the components and walked around several floors of each building -- past field offices for U.S. lawmakers, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and others.
GAO did not disclose the specific buildings it penetrated. All facilities penetrated by GAO investigators were considered "Level 4" high-security buildings – that house more than 450 employees, house major agencies that have national security or law enforcement responsibilities, and might be a likely target for an attack.
Investigators encountered a guard asleep at his post, after taking the powerful painkiller Percocet. At another facility, they found a guard using FPS computers to operate "a private for-profit adult website."
GAO investigators also reviewed guard certifications, and found that most lacked at least one certification that should have been required to work as a federal guard. Federal buildings are protected by the Federal Protective Service, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. The service relies heavily on contact guard services, which provide 13,000 personnel to the service.
"It is outrageously unacceptable that federal employees working in federal buildings. . . are still apparently so utterly exposed to potential attack by terrorists or other violent people," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-CT, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on the investigation Wednesday morning. "I cannot fathom how security breaches of this magnitude were allowed to occur," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the panel's ranking Republican.
Federal Protective Service: 'Agency in Crisis'
Calling the FPS "an agency in crisis," Lieberman noted FPS has had serious budget shortfalls, "but that doesn't excuse or explain" their inability to protect federal workers and buildings.
GAO's findings were "disturbing news" that "caused us all grave concern," said FPS director Gary W. Schenkel in his testimony before the committee. He listed steps he had begun taking "within three hours" of learning of the reported security lapses. Schenkel said he had formed a "Tiger Team" of FPS officials to evaluate and improve security at federal buildings, boosted inspections, and warned the companies providing contract guards that lapses were "unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
"I want to express to you my personal sense of urgency and commitment to the important responsibility I share with the men and women of FPS, in keeping our nation safe," Schenkel told the senators. He said he was "confident" FPS guards could "continue to meet the challenges of its homeland security mission."
Schenkel told the panel he was not contesting any of GAO's findings. "I take full responsibility. I am director of the organization."