'Shocking' Security Breaches at Federal Buildings

Government investigators smuggle in bomb parts, find guards sleeping on the job.

ByPierre Thomas and Jack Date
July 07, 2009, 3:43 PM

July 8, 2009— -- It only took 27 seconds for him to smuggle live bomb components through security detail in a federal building. Later, he assembled a bomb in the restroom, and then walked around the facility undetected.

In that instance, it was a congressional investigator testing security procedures. But the investigation into the agency charged with protecting federal buildings revealed security gaps that could prove dangerous if a terrorist group or individual focuses an attack on a federal building.

Investigators from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, were able to penetrate all 10 of the undisclosed federal buildings it tested across the United States.

Watch the full report tonight on "World News with Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. ET

"Of the 10 Level IV facilities we penetrated, 8 were government-owned, 2 were leased, and included offices of a U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative, as well as agencies such as the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Justice," according to a preliminary report from the GAO. Level IV facilities are defined as having more than 450 employees and "a high volume of public contact."

"It's stunning. It's shocking," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, told ABC News.

"It just says that basically some people have forgotten the lessons of 9/11," he continued.

The Federal Protective Service, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for securing more than 9,000 federal buildings and, among other employees, utilizes 15,000 contract security guards.

The GAO has been investigating the service since 2007 for a wide range of reported problems, and says it found serious vulnerabilities during visits to the 10 buildings.

ABC News obtained videos and images from the GAO investigation. Investigators are slated to publish their latest findings in a report later this summer, but Lieberman's staff said he found the information compiled so troubling that he scheduled a hearing for today.

"What troubles me most is that what GAO found indicates systemic problems," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at today's hearing. "If GAO had been successful in smuggling bomb components into one or maybe two buildings, it still would have been troubling, especially since these are high-risk, high-security buildings. But the fact that GAO succeeded each and every time is so troubling, and it indicates a pervasive systemic problem."

Security officials say federal facilities -- as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City demonstrated -- remain a primary target.

"Just think about it. In this case, in this GAO test, 10 different federal buildings in different cities in the country were all compromised," Lieberman told ABC News. "If a terrorist group just did that in two or three federal buildings, it would not only really hurt some people; it would create a real crisis of confidence here in the United States about our homeland security."

FPS Director Takes 'Full Responsibility'

"I take full responsibility, I am the director of the organization," Federal Protective Service chief Gary Schenkel told lawmakers today.

He admitted that "it's purely a lack of oversight on our part," and said that starting from scratch has been mentioned as the way to go about fixing the agency's problems. But, he added, "in essence, we have started from scratch twice. When I came on board in April '07, we had a task of organizing 11 police departments into one."

Schenkel said that once he learned of the GAO's initial findings, he took the situation seriously and ordered immediate action.

But despite the action taken since the investigation, the security tests highlighted critical issues.

"We brought in all the components that we needed to make a real bomb," the GAO's Mark Goldstein said as he explained the tests to lawmakers today.

He said the materials used are available in stores and on the Internet, and that the assembled bombs carried around by investigators cost less than $150 to produce and took less than four minutes to assemble.

Goldstein noted that the investigators "did use actual bomb components, but they were at a level that would not actually set the bomb off. The concentration was below the trigger point."

The government investigators detonated bombs that would have produced the same results as those used in the tests. The result? Powerful, potentially deadly explosions. Video of two detonations show one exploding at a test site and another blowing up in the trunk of a car.

Goldstein expressed concern that at several of the security checkpoints tested as part of the probe, "guards were not even looking at the screens that would show materials passing through."

And the security breaches didn't end with smuggled bomb parts, according to the GAO.

Investigators also found stunning examples from among the ranks of the Federal Protective Service, according to the GAO's preliminary results. Investigators caught one armed guard sleeping at his post after taking the prescription painkiller Percocet during his shift. Another "accidentally fired his firearm in a restroom while practicing drawing his weapon." One "was caught using government computers to manage a private for-profit adult Web site" while absent from his post.

But one incident in particular highlights concerns about guard training.

According to the GAO's preliminary findings, an incident occurred after a mother placed her baby's carrier in front of an x-ray machine as she reached for her identification.

"Because the guard was not paying attention and the machine's safety features had been disabled, the infant in the carrier was sent through the x-ray machine," the report found.

The agency fired the guard after an investigation, but the guard sued, claiming that the FPS didn't provide adequate training. "The guard won the suit because FPS could not produce any documentation to show that the guard had received the training," the investigators found.

"When I first heard about the story, about a guard allowing a baby to go through the screening device, on a baby seat, I thought it was made up," Lieberman said. "But it wasn't made up. It was real, and it all speaks to a lack of caring, really. I mean, when you hire someone to be a guard, a security guard at a high-security federal building, they've got life and death responsibility."

Report: Some Federal Building Guards Not Properly Trained

The GAO's preliminary findings also indicate that in one FPS region, the agency "has not provided the required eight hours of x-ray or magnetometer training to its 1,500 guards since 2004."

After inspecting the records of 663 randomly selected guards, the GAO found that nearly two-thirds "had at least one expired firearm qualification, background investigation, domestic violence declaration, or CPR/First Aid training certification."

The investigation highlights problems with management and training at the agency which have led to gaping holes in security.

FPS, once part of General Services Administration, was rolled into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. A 2008 GAO report was highly critical of staff reductions at the agency which, "diminished security and increased the risk of crime or terrorist attacks," in government buildings.

From 2004 to 2007, the agency's staffing was cut by 20 percent.

"FPS is essentially an agency in crisis," the Goldstein told lawmakers at today's hearing. "Over the last five years, since its transformation from GSA to homeland security, they have not received the resources and the staffing that would be required."

"There's been inattention at the highest levels of the department of homeland security to requirements to protecting federal facilities," Goldstein added. "Actions by management over the last couple of years to try and change and improve things had some success but in large measure have been difficult to achieve."

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, released a statement to ABC News saying the department "is committed to providing government facilities and employees with a first class security force. The Federal Protective Service (FPS) is charged with that critical mission and DHS takes the concerns raised in the forthcoming GAO report very seriously."

The statement added that FPS is "taking steps internally to address those shortcomings," and taking steps to "line up mission focus in a more cohesive way" by proposing that the FPS be transferred out from under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the National Protection and Programs Directorate, "the Department's lead for critical infrastructure protection."

"Consolidating department responsibilities for protecting government facilities will result in expeditious implementation of government-wide physical security policy," Chandler's statement concluded.

In his prepared testimony, which he read at the hearing, Schenkel said that prior to the GAO briefing, the agency had already instituted corrective action, and that he asked FPS' regional directors to "immediately increase the number of inspections of protected facilities in their respective regions and to report directly to FPS Headquarters the specific actions they would take to address and correct contract guard performance issues."

Other measures taken, according to Schenkel, include stepping up random inspections, providing more information to security guards and increasing communication with contract guard companies.

Additionally, Schenkel's testimony says the agency has formed response teams to act within the next 60 days "to identify training gaps in the contract guard force and take immediate steps to close them," develop training schedules for the guards and explore new training and technological advancements.

Federal Buildings 'Hugely Symbolic' Terror Targets

But the GAO's preliminary report expresses concern that adding more guard inspections might prove challenging, due in part to staffing limitations.

Lieberman joined security officials in stressing that the stakes couldn't be higher.

Harry "Skip" Brandon, a former deputy assistant director at the FBI detailed to national security and counterterrorism, called the investigation's results "frightening."

"A federal office building represents to an awful lot of people the U.S. government and if anybody has a problem with the U.S. government , they're going to take it out, where they can get publicity, and it's going to be, most likely, in a federal office building," he said.

"For a terrorist group, it's hugely symbolic. There is no question about that," Brandon continued. "So the federal buildings should be very well protected. It's appalling to me that we see that, in fact, they're not even minimally protected."

Another problem, said both Brandon and Lieberman, is the slashed funding, which results in smaller staffs and contributes to diminished training for the guards tasked with providing security.

"I suspect that part of the problem here is money," Lieberman said. "And we've got to be very careful. If there was ever a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish, this is it."

"Part of the problem here I'm afraid is that we're not investing the money to hire the best people to be the guards and then to train them effectively," he added.

Lieberman said that in the short term, he'd like to make certain that the Department of Homeland Security devotes extra attention to the FPS, and to later push to give it more prominence within the department because of its critical role. He also suggested moving the service out from under the umbrella of ICE.

"This has been a mess. But it's a mess with very serious consequences for our homeland security, and it's an urgent matter based on this GAO report for Secretary Napolitano and anybody in a position of responsibility in the Department of Homeland Security to act on now," Lieberman said.

As for the training aspect, Brandon said that too often in government, officials lose sight of "what I would say, are front line people, whether they're the building guard, the telephone operator, the people that move the mail, and they represent the greatest vulnerability."

"The first responsibility of the federal government is to provide security," said Lieberman. "If you don't have that, then anything else we do is not worth anything."

ABC News' Theresa Cook and Olivia Hallihan contributed to this report.

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