Report: Interior stretched thin in protecting monuments

Interior Department officials are concerned that current funding and staffing levels fail to meet needs required by the increasing terrorism threat to national memorials, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO recommended that the agency link the calculated risk of a terrorist attack on national monuments and icons to funding levels, but did not say whether Interior's staff or funding should be increased for guarding national memorials.

The 57-page report (GAO-05-790), released earlier this week, urges the Interior to develop a philosophy for balancing terrorism prevention with the agency's core mission of providing public access to areas ranging from the monuments on the National Mall in Washington to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.

The report also looked at the General Services Administration's efforts to protect federal buildings and recommended that a chief security officer position be established within the agency to address terrorism concerns.

Former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers told Government Executive that the report validates concerns she raised about 18 months ago when she told The Washington Post that her 620-member police force needed more officers and funding to guard the nation's memorials and parks. Chambers was placed under a gag order days after making those comments and later fired.

"I certainly was not surprised to see that the GAO findings and recommendations were similar to mine," Chambers said. "But I wonder if now will be the time Congress will question the legality of what I was terminated for."

The GAO report, issued in response to a request from Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, stated that "leveraging limited resources is an ongoing challenge" for the Interior Department. The agency averages one law enforcement officer for every 110,000 visitors and 118,000 acres of land, agency officials told GAO.

"The department's law enforcement staff is already spread thin … Funding challenges for Interior homeland security programs have been well documented," the report stated.

Citing an August 2003 Interior inspector general report, GAO stated that the increase in park security has "had an impact on other parks and law enforcement officers across the Park Service," as rangers are sent from their permanent parks to areas considered at higher risk of a terrorist attack.

GAO concluded that Interior officials are better positioning themselves to complete for homeland security-related funding and that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Interior has improved security at high-profile sites.

Larry Parkinson, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement and security, said that few would disagree that more protection could be provided with additional funding. The agency is currently reprioritizing its deployment of forces. Once that process is complete, Parkinson said, "we will be in a better position to know if we need more forces."

"One of the criticisms of the Park Police is that there was a failure to do that prioritization," Parkinson said. "I think both the executive branch and the legislative branch were reluctant to provide additional resources until we prioritized."

The budget should reflect the agency's reprioritization in fiscal 2007 or 2008, Parkinson said.

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