WASHINGTON – In what a Senate committee chairman called “the broadest indictment of a federal agency that I’ve heard,” testimony before Congress on Wednesday revealed widespread security failures in the nation’s federal facilities – including an inability to detect materials used in explosive devices.
Government Accountability Office investigators carrying liquid bomb-making materials passed undetected through security checkpoints monitored by guards for the Federal Protection Service, which serve nearly 9,000 federal facilities throughout the country. Investigators then assembled bomb components in restrooms, though in low concentrations so they would not explode, and walked freely around the facilities while carrying the devices in briefcases, according to preliminary findings of a GAO study released Wednesday.
In some cases, bathrooms were locked, but building employees allowed investigators to enter.
The GAO said the devices were made of a liquid explosive and a low-yield detonator, which could be purchased at local stores or over the Internet for less than $150.
Investigators placed their briefcases on the conveyor belts, but the guards and X-ray machines failed to detect anything suspicious. At three of the 10 security checkpoints, guards were not looking at the X-ray screens as the bomb-making materials passed through the machine. Only one guard at one of the checkpoints questioned an item in the briefcase.
The tests were carried out at 10 facilities within four cities in major metropolitan areas. Eight of the buildings were government-owned, and they included the district offices of a U.S. senator and a U.S. representative, as well as agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (of which the FPS is a part) and the State and Justice departments. All tests were conducted during April and May of this year.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., called the hearing after learning of the GAO’s initial findings. Gary Schenkel, the FPS’ director, accepted responsibility for the findings but addressed challenges his agency has experienced since he arrived in 2007, including its budget constraints. In response to the GAO findings, he said the FPS needed to be “much more involved” in “standardizing” the agency and its training procedures in all 50 states.