Imagine this frightening scenario: Government inspectors set out to test the security of ten high-traffic federal buildings in four major U.S. cities, where thousands of people work and visit each day. The covert operators obtain the components to make the bombs, at a cost of less than $150 each, from items available at most hardware stores.
The investigators, concealing the materials on themselves and in briefcases, then attempt to enter guarded checkpoints at some of the nation's most secure federal buildings. These so-called "Level Four" buildings are just one security notch beneath the rigorous policing forces that guard the White House and the U.S. Congress.
How many times do you think these investigators were successful? One or two times would have signaled a major failure in the system, in my view. But, the reality was much worse, and much more alarming, than that: Ten out of ten buildings were breached.
When I first read an early copy of the report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducted these tests, I was stunned to learn that the inspectors had uncovered a worst-case scenario.
They infiltrated every single one of the federal buildings they targeted. Once inside, they went to restrooms, assembled the bombs in less than four minutes and then freely carried the devices through corridors and into offices, finding no resistance at any juncture. The GAO report also included a shocking undercover video, which showed an investigator walking through a checkpoint with the hidden bomb-making materials. It later showed the explosive power of the bomb as it was detonated in the truck of a car, destroying the vehicle.
The bottom line: These testers had a 100 percent rate of success. They easily punctured security checkpoints at what are supposed to be heavily guarded federal facilities.
As the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, I am outraged by the findings. That is why Chairman Joe Lieberman and I recently held an urgent hearing before our panel. We knew we had to expose this vulnerability, heighten public awareness to the issue and apply congressional pressure to force a quick solution.
In post-9/11 America, we know that our nearly 9,000 federal buildings, in particular, are obvious terrorist targets. We know that we must be vigilant to suspicious activities and to security matters in our daily lives.
How could it be, then, that the Federal Protective Service (FPS), the agency assigned to carry out this duty – and paid to carry out this duty -- had failed so miserably? How could the performance of its force, which includes approximately 15,000 private contract guards, have been so appalling and negligent? Senator Lieberman and I were not satisfied with the responses that we received from the FPS during our hearing. Clearly, the system is broken. There is no other way to explain the distressing details. That's why we have directed the FPS chief to report back to our committee within two weeks with concrete recommendations to immediately address this inept security system.
At three of the federal buildings, the assigned guards were not even looking at the x-ray screens when the bomb components passed through the machines. At some buildings, the GAO investigators found the restrooms locked. They asked employees to open them; they all complied. In another case, an armed guard was found asleep at his post after taking a dose of a heavy-duty prescription painkiller. In yet another instance, a guard who was supposed to be on post was discovered off post, using government computers to further his private, for-profit, adult Web site. And then there was the inattentive guard who unimaginably allowed an infant in a baby carrier to go through the x-ray machine.
Resources are undoubtedly part of the solution. In Maine, there are only two FPS inspectors to cover security at the federal buildings and to conduct the necessary inspections at ports of entry along the northern and eastern border. It is more than 300 miles from the federal courthouse in Portland to the Port of Entry in Fort Kent, nearly six hours in driving time. With so few inspectors, FPS lacks the capacity to effectively respond to incidents at the thousands of facilities they are responsible for securing nationwide.
But I am not convinced that additional resources alone will address the entire problem. To me, all the evidence points to a systemic failure, rooted in lax management, poor training, lapsed documentation, inconsistent enforcement of security standards and little rigor. It will take more than additional guards to right this ship and give the American taxpayers the security we pay for and expect to receive from the Federal Protective Service.
We are all painfully aware of the grim lessons of 9/11. In 2001, our nation failed to connect the dots and to see the dire threat that we faced. These security lapses uncovered by the GAO represent a new threat to us, coming just two months before the eighth anniversary of 9/11. The FPS must take immediate action to remedy these serious security failures. Congress also should move forward with additional measures to help protect these facilities, our federal employees, and the American public.