Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The GAO Bombs Out

I brought bomb-making materials into my government office building today, and the security guards didn't catch me. It was no big deal. I do it every day, at least, I do if you use a sufficiently broad definition of "bomb-making materials."

The security hoopla of the hour in Washington is the new General Accountability Office report on deficiencies at the Federal Protective Service, the small agency (only 1,236 direct-hire employees) with the large responsibility to protect the USG's 9,000-some office buildings and 1 million-plus employees. The attention-grabbing part of the report was a stunt in which the GAO had people enter several government office buildings carrying unnamed liquids and other purported bomb-making components.

From the Washington Post report:

"I think we would be able to say that FPS is simply an agency in crisis," said Mark L. Goldstein, who led the GAO investigation. ... Goldstein's team carried bomb-making materials into ten high-security federal buildings in the last year. The materials could be purchased at stores or on the Internet and cost roughly $150, Goldstein said. In only one instance did a security guard question a GAO investigator carrying suspicious materials.

And this demonstrates what, exactly? Only that we don't prohibit liquids or most common objects from government office buildings. Should we? The smuggling stunt begs the question whether it would be reasonable to ban liquids, etc., from our public buildings. Is there a risk here that outweighs the imposition on employees and visitors?

It seems not. No one has actually carried out such an attack (except in aircraft, where the small amounts of explosive that are feasible to smuggle on board can be enough to do critical damage, unlike in office buildings) and, so far as I know, no one has cited any evidence or intelligence suggesting such an attack in the future.

Furthermore, it's impossible to ban all "bomb-making materials" from office buildings under any practical circumstances. For starters, we'd have to ban anything that might contain precursor chemicals, including sugar and sugary products, aspirin and all kinds of medications, anything containing hydrogen peroxide (like contact lens solution), petroleum jelly, and all liquids and all solid organic materials that haven't been screened with a trace explosives detector. Lock up the first aid kits and close the cafeterias, since both are mother lodes of bomb-making materials. Next, ban anything containing batteries, and all lighters and matches. For good measure, ban all objects that could be used to conceal mechanical components, such as pens, watches, computers, and office equipment in general.

We could do all of that and still not have disarmed those fiendish terrorists. My old U.S. Army technical manual on improvised munitions (TM 31-210) explains how to process urine to produce the explosive material urea nitrate. So we'd better set up outdoor latrines, and guard them to make sure that particular source of liquid explosive isn't misused.

The Federal Protective Service used to be an office inside the General Services Agency, which made sense since the GSA is the government's landlord. But when it was moved under Homeland Security it became something of an orphan agency, with no real 'owner' and no real budget. So long as the administration and congress keep running the Federal Protective Service on a shoestring, they have no business complaining about its deficiencies, I say.

The agency draws most of its revenue from the tenants of federal buildings, who pay it for the protection on a per-square foot basis. [Federal Protective Service] has 1,236 full-time employees and employs approximately 15,000 contract guards. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Homeland Security committee's ranking Republican, wants the government to better determine the agency's future use of private security guards.

“We taxpayers are simply not receiving the security we paid for and the security we expect FPS to provide," she said.

Really? With 15,000 contract guards to cover 9,000 federal office buildings, we could theoretically have 1.6 guards per building, assuming they all worked 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. In practical terms, we could have one eight-hour guard post for every other building. That's not nearly enough personnel to do even the most minimal access control, much less a thorough inspection of all one million employees and who knows how many daily visitors.

It seems to me that we're receiving exactly the security we paid for and should expect FPS to provide.

1 comment:

Kelsey said...

My boyfriend actually works for a private security company with a federal contract. He works in several buildings in NW which contain various govt. agencies.

Let me tell you, these people are wicked unprofessional and somewhat inept. I'll give you some examples:

1. They're not allowed to have cell phones on them while they're guarding a building, and yet nearly every day I get a phone call from one of his supervisors on our temporarily-shared cell phone, trying to reach him.

2. Those phone calls are typically trying to find out where he is. They seem to have no central database schedule of any sort to find out where a given employee is assigned at a given time.

3. Along those lines, let me give you an anecdote that occurred last week: said boyfriend was called at 9pm to be told where he would be working the next day (it is not unusual for them to give him less than 12 hours of warning before he will be working), at Address A. He went to work at Address A from 8am-4pm. The next day he got a call from his supervisor asking why he didn't show up to work the day before. Confused, he said he did work, as assigned at Address A, from 8-4. Apparently he was supposed to instead be working at Address B, from 2-10pm. He recieved no phone call telling him this, and on the day that he supposedly didn't show up at work, he recieved no phone calls asking "why aren't you here at work at Address B?". Yeah.

4. His site bosses show up hours late more often than they show up on time.

It seems to me that honestly, if the govt. wants to have better security, they need to raise the bar a little bit. The training at the company my boyfriend works for consists of one day of in-classroom training. That's it. Their education requirement is a GED. Now, my boyfriend has previous law enforcement experience and a master's in criminology (he only has the job at the moment because of the economy), but he says he has only run into one other employee thus far (at the guard level, at least) that has even an undergrad degree. If the govt. wants their buildings protected better, might want to think about raising the standards of training, at the very least.