Growing chorus calls for federalizing building security

The Homeland Security Department should consider decreasing its reliance on contract guards at federal buildings, a top government watchdog testified on Wednesday.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, told the House Homeland Security Committee that DHS' Federal Protective Service has failed repeatedly to properly manage its contract workforce and that federalizing security should now be an option.

"We recommend that FPS identify other approaches to protecting federal buildings," Goldstein said.

Wednesday's hearing comes on the heels of a GAO report that noted undercover agents were able to slip fake guns, knives and explosives past guards. Since July 2009, FPS conducted 53 penetration tests at federal facilities nationwide, according to the report. In more than 66 percent of those tests, guards did not identify the prohibited items, GAO said.

During the first test in August 2009, an undercover FPS official placed a fake gun and knife on an X-ray machine belt and was able to retrieve the items and proceed to the check-in desk without incident. During a second test, a magnetometer detected a knife hidden on an FPS officer, but the guard failed to locate the item, and the officer entered the facility. The guards had not received mandatory X-ray and magnetometer training, GAO found.

Meanwhile, during a November 2009 check at a level IV facility -- a high-security building with more than 450 employees -- guards missed a phony bomb placed in an agent's bag. Security spotted a gun and detained the undercover agent during a second test. "However, the FPS inspector was told to stand in a corner and was not handcuffed or searched as required," the report said. "In addition, while all the guards were focusing on the individual with the fake gun, a second FPS inspector walked through the security checkpoint with two knives without being screened."

In response to the test, FPS suspended two guards and gave two others additional training, Goldstein said.

GAO also found FPS failed to punish seven companies previously found to have expired certifications and training requirements. In fact, the agency exercised an option to extend the contracts of the seven firms and cited each of the companies for satisfactory or better service. Of 99 contract companies GAO assessed, 82 had received performance ratings of satisfactory, very good or exceptional, the report said.

FPS Director Gary Schenkel said in certain cases, firms have been assessed financial penalties. Many of the issues GAO cited did not rise to the level of contract termination, he said. The agency has made significant improvements in the performance of its contract and federal workforce, Schenkel added. It has increased the frequency of unannounced inspections, bolstered training and worked to ensure contractors are meeting certification requirements, he said. Earlier this week, Homeland Security announced new security standards for all federal buildings.

"While we believe we can effectively secure federal buildings with the current mix of highly trained federal staff and contract guards, we have not ruled out the possibility of expanding our federal workforce," Schenkel testified.

FPS leaders have conducted several internal staffing analyses, including scenarios of total or partial federalization, Schenkel said. DHS expects to complete its study in time to be included in the fiscal 2012 budget, he said.

FPS has a budget of about $1 billion, and employs 1,225 full-time workers and 15,000 contract security guards at more than 2,300 federal facilities nationwide. In fiscal 2009, the service obligated $659 million for guards, the single largest item in its budget.

Lawmakers were divided on whether federalizing FPS' guard workforce would be an improvement. Democrats noted that federal officials successfully protect the Capitol and the White House. But Republicans said FPS has been criticized repeatedly for oversight and management deficiencies. They expressed concern the agency is not capable of managing an in-house security team. Industry officials agreed that better contractor training and oversight would significantly improve federal security.

"Federalizing contract security forces will not change the outcome of poor training," said Stephen Amitay, federal legislative counsel for the National Association of Security Companies. "When making decisions about federalizing the force, one must look at the root causes of the current deficiencies. And one root cause is poor training administered by the FPS, not necessarily the recipient of the training."

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plan to introduce a bill later in April to reform and modernize FPS.

Former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin argued during the hearing that security functions should be a fundamental government responsibility. Contractors, he said, have too much of a financial incentive to cut corners to maximize profits. Federal labor unions also support federalizing security guard functions.

"The ultimate size of the guard force should, needless to say, be driven by security concerns, not budgetary ones," Ervin testified. "In short, federalization, if done right, would not be cheap, quick, or easy. But with adequate resources, planning and deliberation, and due oversight, it would likely result in making federal workers safer at a time when we know that terrorists are working overtime to exploit security gaps."

Ervin, now director of the homeland security program at the nonprofit Aspen Institute, cautioned federalization is not a panacea for FPS' problems. He urged the Obama administration to learn from the rushed stand-up of the Transportation Security Administration following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many of the early TSA screeners, it was later learned, were not properly vetted or trained.

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