Cutbacks and confusion over building security leave workers wondering who's guarding the doors.
After the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building 13 years ago, things changed for federal employees, especially in Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, just after 9 a.m., a truck rented by Timothy McVeigh and packed with more than 6,200 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane and diesel fuel detonated on the north side of the Murrah building. The blast-which killed 168 people, including 15 children in the federal day care center, and left more than 800 injured-destroyed one-third of the nine-story federal building and shattered glass in 258 buildings in a 16-block radius. It was, at the time, the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.
Within two weeks of the attack, one building just four blocks away-occupied by the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other agencies-installed X-ray machines, magnetometers and glass security walls, and posted security guards in the lobby. Every person entering the building was scanned and their credentials verified.
Tightened security soon became a familiar sight at federal buildings throughout the nation, with policies quickly implemented to prevent similar attacks. Facilities in major cities were ordered to immediately erect Jersey walls to restrict the proximity of vehicles, and construction standards for new federal buildings were changed to require car bomb-resistant barriers and setbacks from surrounding streets.
But what a difference a decade makes. That post-bombing ramp- up has been almost completely rolled back, says Lauri Goff, president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 45 and an employee in that Oklahoma City building. And security faded even more after the Federal Protective Service's post-Sept. 11 transition to the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, she says.
The 10-story, 400,000-square-foot building where Goff works houses hundreds of federal employees. Nonetheless, she says, it has almost no security. There are no guards in the lobby, no one patrols the vacant floors and the cameras work intermittently.
"People talk all the time about being uncomfortable with the security situation," Goff says. "I'm willing to concede the fact that the people in Oklahoma City who were here, such as me, during the Murrah building bombing might be a little antsier than others, but even those who weren't talk about it."
Her concern is echoed by federal employees across the country, who have told Government Executive they do not feel safe, and by the Government Accountability Office, which has sounded the alarm on federal building security.
GAO's most recent report on building security (GAO-08-683), released in June, concluded that dwindling re-sources at the Federal Protective Service had "diminished security at facilities and increased the risk of crime or terrorist attacks." FPS is the primary agency responsible for protecting more than 1 million federal employees at about 9,000 General Services Administration-owned or leased buildings nationwide.
Formerly a component of GSA's Public Buildings Service, the Federal Protective Service was transferred to ICE in 2003. In this transition, many say, FPS became a victim of Homeland Security budget battles. With costs exceeding revenue, FPS instituted
cutbacks, which brought a 20 percent decrease in staffing between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2007. And the agency's strategic plan shifted to put the emphasis on hiring private security guards.
The security agency, facing hiring freezes after its transfer to ICE, began expanding its contract guard force out of necessity. Simultaneously, FPS leaders were developing a strategic approach that would keep inspectors, who monitor security compliance, in-house and contract out the more mundane elements of law enforcement, such as access control. This strategic shift, not formally announced until the spring of 2007, has been met with extreme skepticism from lawmakers.
The most recent data from FPS Director Gary W. Schenkel puts the contract guard force at 17,000, says Mark Goldstein, GAO director of physical infrastructure and lead author of the report on the agency. Schenkel's office did not respond to interview requests.
"There are not Federal Protective Service officers or inspectors at every building; in fact, many buildings do not have FPS officers at all and some do not see FPS officials for months at a time," Goldstein says. "Clearly, the main line of defense and protection and security at any federal building is the contract guard force."
By focusing on contract guards, FPS is virtually eliminating the in-house law enforcement officer position. Instead, the agency's staff will be composed of inspectors who also have law enforcement duties in addition to their existing responsibilities.
Inspectors conduct building security assessments, coordinate with security committees and oversee contract guards, among other tasks. "It's a lot of work," Goldstein says. "Frankly, it's quite a lot of work, and again they're now responsible for doing the police officer function as well."
FPS plans to add 150 inspectors in the reorganization, bringing its workforce to about 1,200 employees. Still, that is 79 less than the agency had at the end of fiscal 2006, when officials say tenant agencies experienced a decrease in security services.
Federal Protective Service and ICE officials have defended themselves in a number of congressional hearings during the last few years against accusations of shoddy procurement practices, such as hiring a security firm owned and operated by a convicted felon and late payments to contract guard companies. "It was a challenge there for about three years for the agency to really establish a strong organization and strong management, and during that period both of those things happened," says Daya Khalsa, president of Espanola, N.M.-based Akal Security Inc., one of the top contractors providing security guards to FPS. "Their administration was under a great deal of stress and their procurement practices were not strong during that period."
Khalsa says he has seen a distinct turnaround during the last two years. He says the increased focus on contract guards has motivated the agency to strengthen its procurement functions. Khalsa now sees FPS contracting officers responding quickly to payment issues and making a "concerted effort to increase the quality of the services they're procuring. They've made tremendous strides."
Who's in Charge
Regardless of how well the contract guard program is run, some fear it has inherent flaws that put federal build- ings at risk.
Contract guards, for example, do not have arrest authority, and Goldstein says it remains unclear whether they even have clearance to detain someone suspicious or threatening. "Many officers have told us that in instances where there might be an issue of liability, guards are not encouraged by their companies to take any action," he says.
Ambiguity has led to instances of suspicious individuals being denied access to federal buildings but not detained or questioned. GAO reported one situation in which contract guards stopped a person attempting to carry illegal weapons into a federal facility. They restricted his access to the building but did not detain him or confiscate his weapons; they simply allowed him to leave, a violation of FPS policy.
Goff witnessed a similar incident in her building, only it was an FPS officer who failed to detain someone she felt was clearly a threat. An individual whom she describes as "a very angry, disheveled, shabbily dressed man" with "electronic equipment" in his backpack came into the IRS taxpayer service center and began threatening the contract guards. They alerted the area FPS officer, who arrived at the building and escorted the man outside. Goff said the IRS' own security coordinator stepped in to work with Oklahoma City police to find and detain the individual, a former mental hospital patient who was off his medication.
Khalsa says contract guards receive more 120 hours of pre-employment training, including 40 hours of firearms instruction. They undergo background checks and certifications conducted by FPS. Nonetheless, Goldstein says, "there's some question as to how effective the contract guard force is."
Most contract guards are stationed at building access points or other fixed posts. While this positions them to check identification and direct employees and visitors through metal detectors and magnetometers, it means many buildings do not have security guards on patrol either inside or outside.
Despite the lack of proactive patrols, GAO said anti-terrorism reports from multiple agencies noted their importance "in detecting and deterring terrorist surveillance teams, which frequently use information such as the placement of armed guards and proximity to law enforcement agency stations when choosing targets and planning attacks."
The Price of Safety
As FPS struggles with limited resources, tenant agencies also are feeling the strain of paying for safety. Many employees say it's unclear who is responsible for funding security infrastructure-the agencies, FPS or GSA. That uncertainty, along with tight budgets across the board, is leaving technology gaps even at high-risk facilities.
GAO reported that at one Level IV facility, the highest security designation under FPS jurisdiction, officials said only 11 of 150 security cameras were fully functional and able to record images. The agency told GAO that malfunctioning security cameras had hindered investigations of "significant crimes" at multiple high-risk facilities.
A tour of federal facilities in the Washington area proves a range of camera use. Some buildings have only a few fixed cameras pointed at entrances and others invest in street-level, 360-degree cameras mounted at short intervals around the entire facility.
Agencies pay a basic fee of 62 cents per square foot to FPS for security services "just for the privilege of being there," Goldstein says. Then they pay additional fees for security upgrades such as cameras or contract guards. While the fee structure covered FPS costs in fiscal 2007 and is projected to in fiscal 2008 as well, GAO does not believe it is equitable.
"Regardless of whether you're in a building that's a Level I or a Level IV, regardless of whether you're out in Oshkosh, where you don't see an FPS officer for three months, or if you're in New York City, where you have four or five of them sitting at your door, you pay the same amount," Goldstein says. "It's not based on risk or level of service, and we are concerned with that."
At a June House hearing, Schenkel assured lawmakers that the strategic shift to an inspector-based workforce would allow FPS to retain law enforcement authority while fulfilling other responsibil-ities such as building security assessments and oversight of the contract guard program.
ICE embraced the recommendations GAO made, which include determining the optimum number of employees for facility protection and developing a human resources approach to manage them, reassessing the security fee structure, clarifying whether and when local law enforcement should respond to incidents at GSA facilities, and improving performance measurement.
Goldstein says GAO is far from finished with its evaluation of the Federal Protective Service. The watchdog agency has begun a review of the contract guard program and a separate review of the human capital issues stemming from the agency's placement within ICE and Homeland Security. Both reports are expected in the spring of 2009.