As part of a recent review, investigators from the watchdog agency successfully entered 10 high-security federal buildings carrying components for a bomb through doors being monitored by contract guards. Once inside, the investigators assembled an improvised explosive device and walked freely around the buildings and into various legislative and executive branch offices with the IED in a briefcase, GAO said in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Lawmakers called GAO's findings disturbing, shocking and outrageous, and asked urgently and repeatedly what they could do to help FPS gain control of the situation.
"In this post-9/11 world that we're now living in, I cannot fathom how security breaches of this magnitude were allowed to occur," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the committee.
Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said that in all his years of reading GAO reports, this one represented "about the broadest indictment of an agency in the federal government I've heard."
Mark Goldstein, GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues and author of the report, told lawmakers the review revealed significant shortcomings in FPS' ability to monitor and verify contract guard training and firearms certifications. In reviewing 663 randomly selected guards, GAO found that 62 percent had at least one expired certification.
Goldstein said a lack of funding has hindered the agency's ability to reach appropriate staffing levels and provide the technological tools necessary to protect federal buildings. But a number of the problems with the contract guard program are unrelated to budgetary constraints, he said.
"Not having national standards and guidance for inspecting the guards, [and] better standards for knowing when certifications have expired -- things like that, are not resource-based," Goldstein said. "I think there has been a lack of attention to this part of the protective requirements for federal buildings."
Lieberman said he and Collins are aware of management problems at FPS and that is one reason why they have not pressed to increase the agency's budget. "We didn't want to just throw more money at the problem until we fix the agency," he said.
FPS Director Gary Schenkel did not dispute GAO's findings and said he takes full responsibility for the failures as head of the agency. He assured the committee that FPS officials have been making progress in addressing deficiencies and are working even faster now that they are aware of GAO's findings.
"When GAO presented its findings several weeks ago, we took it very seriously," Schenkel said. "We knew we still had challenges ahead of us and had already initiated corrective action prior to receiving the GAO briefing."
Schenkel said that within hours of the briefing, he instructed regional directors to identify actions to address and correct contract guard performance issues and report back to headquarters. He issued a memorandum to FPS employees, contract guard companies, customer agencies and others advising them of their responsibilities and the remedial action the agency plans to take. Schenkel additionally established a Tiger Team to address the challenge of contract guard oversight and has asked the group of regional directors, managers and staff to identify problems and develop solutions within 60 days.
"We're coming up with some fairly aggressive, I think very aggressive, means to address these problems," Schenkel said.
Lieberman said the committee originally intended to hold a hearing once the full report on the contract guard program was released in September, but felt compelled to act now after seeing the initial results.
"We were so jarred and unsettled by some of the preliminary indications in the briefing we got from GAO, we thought we should go public with it and work with [Schenkel] and [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano and my colleagues here to get it right quickly, because this is a vulnerability," Lieberman said.
Lieberman said he hoped the hearing would "accelerate and intensify" FPS' attempts to turn things around.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., a co-requestor of the GAO report, said in a statement that: "FPS must be a fully integrated part of the [Homeland Security Department] family so it can be provided with the adequate staffing, training and funding it needs to effectively carry out its mission and prevent any future incidents."
During the hearing, Schenkel said he agreed with Napolitano's proposal to move FPS from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau to the National Protection and Programs Directorate. The change requires congressional approval, but Schenkel said it would give FPS the visibility it needs. David Wright, president of the American Federation of Government Employees FPS Local 918, said the protection directorate is a much more natural fit than ICE.
"I see a much brighter future for the FPS," Wright said. "The move creates the opportunity FPS needs to rebuild itself into the first class anti-crime and anti-terrorism agency the nation requires."
Collins urged Schenkel to be straightforward and thorough in telling the committee what else it needs to remedy these persistent and systemic problems.
"We can't help you solve this problem unless we know specifically what you need to correct such egregious security lapses," Collins said.
After the hearing, Lieberman and Collins -- along with Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio -- announced they will begin drafting an FPS authorization bill. In a statement, the senators said the legislation would give Napolitano authority to move the agency from ICE to NPPD, allow an initial increase in funding and require the development of a long-term strategy for staffing and training.