GAO: Major security flaws found at federal buildings

Undercover investigators sneaked bombs and detonators past security guards and into federal buildings occupied by the Homeland Security, Justice and State departments, according to testimony to be delivered Wednesday.

Investigators for Congress' Government Accountability Office said they succeeded on each of 10 attempts in April and May to enter federal office buildings with a hidden liquid explosive and detonator. Inside the buildings, investigators assembled the bombs, carried them in a briefcase and "walked freely around several floors," according to a statement the GAO will make at a Senate hearing Wednesday morning. A copy of the statement was provided to USA TODAY.

The buildings weren't disclosed, but each is "Security Level IV," or high-risk. GAO investigators also carried bombs into offices of a U.S. senator and a House member. Neither was identified.

The test exposes "substantial security vulnerabilities" in a little-known Homeland Security agency called the Federal Protective Service (FPS), the testimony says. The service's guards protect 9,000 federal facilities, including courthouses and national political conventions.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., called the tests "shocking" and will question FPS Director Gary Schenkel at a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman, who chairs the committee and received the GAO's testimony in advance, noted that terrorists have attacked two federal buildings: the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Lieberman said it is "unacceptable" that the millions of people who visit and work in federal buildings "are so utterly exposed to potential attack by terrorists."

Schenkel learned about the GAO test results several weeks ago and "took it very seriously," according to a copy of testimony he will give Wednesday morning. Schenkel said he immediately ordered FPS' top regional officials to increase oversight of their guards, and will improve guard training within 60 days.

The GAO focused on the 15,000 armed guards who work for private security companies that the FPS hires and oversees with a team of 1,200 federal workers. Prospective guards are required to receive 128 hours of training, including eight hours on operating X-ray machines and metal detectors.

However, the 1,500 guards working in one region have received no X-ray or metal-detector training since 2004, the GAO found. At one federal building in a major city, an infant in a carrier was sent through an X-ray machine "due to a guard's negligence," the GAO found. That is dangerous because of the potential radiation exposure.

The GAO also reviewed background material of 663 guards and found that 62% of them had at least one expired certification that the FPS requires for them to work.