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Drills successful planting bombs in 10 buildings, including DHS offices: GAO

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GAO: Major Security Flaws at Federal Buildings
by Ed O’Keefe
Column: Federal Eye: Keeping Tabs on the Government at Washingtonpost.com

The police agency in charge of protecting thousands of federal buildings nationwide has failed to keep bomb-making materials out of several high-security facilities in the past year, according to Congressional testimony provided by Senate aides. In the past year, investigators successfully smuggled bomb-making materials into ten high-security federal buildings, constructed bombs and walked around the buildings undetected, exposing weaknesses in security provided by the Federal Protective Service.

More than one million government employees work in 9,000 facilities guarded by FPS around the country, including at least 350,000 in the Washington region. The revelations come as the Obama administration prepares to reorganize the agency in the coming weeks.

Investigators carried liquid explosives and low-yield detonators — materials investigators note are not normally carried into federal buildings. The GAO said security concerns prevent it from revealing the exact locations or cities of the affected facilities, but that eight of them were government owned, while two were leased. They included offices of a U.S. senator and House member, as well as offices for the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State, the GAO reported. In one instance, the GAO obtained a building security tape showing an investigator walking through a security checkpoint with bomb making materials.

In the past, security experts have criticized some GAO investigators for publicizing sensational findings or “sting” operations that are not based on intelligence-driven risk assessments. Investigators for the Congressional auditing agency stress however that they followed generally accepted government standards with this round of testing.

“It is simply unacceptable that federal employees working within buildings under FPS’ protection, and the visitors who pass through them, are so utterly exposed to potential attack by terrorists and other enemies,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in a statement. He chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which will hold a hearing on the findings tomorrow. “We knew that the FPS was a troubled agency, but that GAO could penetrate security at these buildings and make bombs without detection is truly shocking.”

“American taxpayers are simply not receiving the security we pay for and should expect the Federal Protective Service to provide,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the panel’s ranking Republican.

The agency will review all of its security and training procedures in the next two months and will perform more drills to test for potential vulnerabilities, according to director Gary W. Schenkel‘s prepared testimony for tomorrow’s hearing.

FPS has 1,200 full-time employees and roughly 13,000 contract guards deployed at 2,300 of the 9,000 federal facilities. It uses security cameras and perimeter lighting to help protect the other locations.

The findings revealed today are consistent with other recent investigations into the agency’s performance. An April Homeland Security inspector general report faulted its contracting processes, while a 2008 GAO survey found the agency so short-staffed it exposed buildings to risk of terrorist attacks.

FPS has existed as a bureaucratic hot potato in recent years, moving from the General Services Administration to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. There it became part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which most observers agree was a bad move. The transition also cost the agency hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies, forcing it to reduce staff and depend more on contract guards. Legislation passed last year once again boosted staffing levels.

The DHS appropriations bill under consideration this week moves FPS once again from ICE to the National Protection and Programs Directorate, a collection of divisions tasked with assessing security risks. The White House announced its support for the move today, saying it will provide more details on the reorganization in the coming weeks.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.