Study documents dangerous security gaps at federal buildings

Management problems at the Federal Protective Service are causing significant security gaps at federal facilities, according to a Government Accountability Office report obtained by Government Executive.

According to the report, which will be released Wednesday, FPS' management of dwindling resources has "diminished security at facilities and increased the risk of crime or terrorist attacks." The Federal Protective Service, formerly a component of the General Services Administration, now operates as part of the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau and is charged with the protection of 9,000 federal buildings.

With a staff that has decreased by about 20 percent between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2007, FPS is, with rare exceptions, unable to provide proactive patrols. The agency is struggling to manage its 15,000-strong contract guard force and to keep vital technology like security cameras operational, GAO reports.

While the report acknowledged there has not been a large-scale attack on a domestic federal facility since Sept. 11, 2001, and the 1996 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, GAO stated that ongoing terror threats and crime required the security agency to be well-managed and effective enough to protect the more than 1 million employees that work in GSA-managed facilities, as well as tourists and visitors.

The report's anecdotal evidence of the challenges facing FPS shows the implications of diminished staffing and budget levels. At one vacant GSA-managed building visited by GAO auditors, officials had found a dead body at one point. FPS officials said the facility was not regularly patrolled and that the body had been inside the building for about three months.

At several other cities, FPS police officers and inspectors told auditors that their ability to cover the building after hours and on weekends had left some federal day care facilities vulnerable to loitering by homeless people and drug users.

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.

FPS has been plagued by funding challenges for years. To fund its operations, FPS charges tenant agencies a fee for its security services. After costs exceeded revenue in 2005 and 2006, the agency instituted cutbacks and raised security fee. DHS was able to avoid transferring funds from other programs, but the cost-cutting measures generated controversy. Lawmakers and officials have said moves such as restricting hiring and travel and limiting training and overtime have hurt morale and safety and increased attrition.

The GAO report also raised concerns about the fairness of the basic security fee, which is flat and does not take into account the degree of risk at any specific building, the level of service provided or the cost of providing that service. A recent FPS workload study cited in the GAO report estimated that the agency spent about six times more hours protecting higher-risk buildings than lower-risk buildings, but the fees for both were the same.

Budgetary restrictions have forced FPS to revamp staffing strategies. While maintaining its 15,000-member contract guard force, the agency plans to eliminate its police officer position and hire additional inspectors and special agents to perform law enforcement and other security duties concurrently. The plan to add 150 inspectors, however, will bring staffing levels to about 1,200. That is 79 people less than the agency had at the end of fiscal 2006, when officials say tenant agencies experienced a decrease in security services.

GAO reported that the staffing plan likely would place more emphasis on activities such as building security assessments and less emphasis on traditional law enforcement duties like proactive patrol. Mark Goldstein, GAO director of physical infrastructure issues and the author of the report, declined to speak with Government Executive in advance of the report's official release, but in the report he emphasized the importance of proactive patrols.

"Reports issued by multiple government entities acknowledge the importance of proactive patrol 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," Goldstein wrote.

By not providing proactive patrol, FPS is limited to a "reactive force," the report states. The problem is complicated by contract guards' limited authority. Private security guards operating in federal buildings do not have arrest authority and are stationed at fixed posts, which they are not permitted to leave unattended. While the guards are authorized to detain individuals, many choose not to because of liability concerns, officials told GAO. In one instance, 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, violating FPS policy.

The oversight of contract guards has been a hot-button topic with lawmakers, particularly in the House. A June 2007 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management set off a small flurry of legislation and policy changes spearheaded by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

The House and Senate will hold hearings Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to review the GAO report with its author and hear testimony from FPS Director Gary Schenkel and David Wright, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 918.

FPS did not return calls for comment, but Penelope McCormack, acting director of Homeland Security's GAO liaison office, wrote in official comments that ICE concurred with the report's six recommendations. These include developing and implementing a strategic approach to managing human resources, evaluating and improving the fee-based system, clarifying roles and responsibilities of local law enforcement at GSA facilities, and improving FPS' ability to measure and report on its own performance and capabilities.

McCormack wrote that FPS and DHS agreed with the findings on the challenges facing the agency and are taking steps to address them. FPS has completed a new strategic plan, is conducting focus groups and is working with stakeholders to better manage resources and responsibilities.

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