Report: 8,800 Federally Protected Buildings at Risk

A new GAO report says the more than 8,800 buildings currently under federal protection are woefully vulnerable to everything — from petty theft to a terrorist attack. Mark Goldstein, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, talks with Michele Norris about the troubled Federal Protective Service.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The U.S. government is responsible for the protection of roughly 8800 federal buildings, not to mention the thousands of Americans who work inside those buildings. But many of these facilities lack both guards and working security equipment. That's according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office. The author of that report, Mark Goldstein, testified on Capitol Hill today. He told lawmakers that the agency responsible for protecting government buildings has cut overall staffing and has reduced regular patrols at some of the buildings. For instance, Goldstein told lawmakers that a dead body was discovered in a vacant government building that was not regularly patrolled. The body had been there for three months.

Mark Goldstein is the director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the GAO, and he stopped by our studios to talk more about the findings. Welcome.

Mr. MARK GOLDSTEIN (Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office): Thank you very much.

NORRIS: First, what is the Federal Protective Service and why has it cut back its staff and its mission?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The Federal Protective Service is the police arm that protects federal buildings. It's been in existence for many years. And it used to be part of the General Services Administration which is the government's landlord. When the Department of Homeland Security was created, FPS was put into the Department of Homeland Security to help better improve the security of federal property. At the same time, we were trying to improve the security of things all across America.

NORRIS: This is counterintuitive. I mean, you would think that with the creation of Homeland Security, they would increase staff and add to their mission as opposed to the opposite.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Some of the reasons why this is occurring is budgetary. The Federal Protective Service has had a big problem in its transfer from one department to the other. They have not received the budget in part that they used to receive. And they've tried to deal with this gap in a number of ways, one of which was to cut staff and another which was to cut a lot of other issues, such as equipment and overtime and travel and training and things like that.

NORRIS: When you say cut equipment, are you talking about security equipment?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: I am talking about security equipment. Radio contact, it would include cameras that watch people coming and going. Magnetometers and X-ray machines, the kinds of things that are used to prevent people from coming into buildings or at least for watching them and ensuring that nothing wrong is occurring.

NORRIS: There was an example that you actually cited where a magnetometer was not working, but they continued to let people pass through it as if it were actually working.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: We heard a number of concerns raised by inspectors and police officers at the Federal Protective Service and we talked to more than 200 of them already. In one major federal building that has a hundred and fifty cameras to watch the premises, only 11 of those cameras actually work. And in other such buildings, similar kinds of things, there were - most of the cameras for an enhancement project were sitting in boxes for five years because there wasn't the money to install them.

NORRIS: Now, Mr. Goldstein, in our intro, we mentioned the case of this dead body that was discovered. What were the circumstances there?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: The circumstances here is that a homeless man went into this building, probably at night, and he cut himself entering the building on some glass and bled to death. The body was found by GSA itself when it took a prospective buyer for that vacant building into the building.

NORRIS: How vulnerable are these buildings?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: They can be very vulnerable. Protective patrol is occurring in a few buildings in the United States right now - at federal buildings but not in most because of what's happened to their staffing. But in those buildings where they are providing protective patrol, they are still catching people surveilling federal buildings who are obviously wishing to do those buildings and people harm. In one city, just recently they arrested several people who were surveilling federal buildings…

NORRIS: Casing the building, checking out.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: They were casing the building for - to cause that building and the people thereharm, yes.

NORRIS: Mark Goldstein is director of Physical Infrastructure Issues for the Government Accountability Office. For a response to the GAO's report, we called Gary Schenkel. He's director of the Federal Protective Service.

Mr. GARY SCHENKEL (Director, Federal Protective Service): There is not a lot of argument to what the GAO report says. But what I will say is the preponderance of our effort is concentrated at what we have determined and has been reinforced by the Department of Homeland Security, a number of different threat analyses. And we are concentrating where the highest threats are. And we're going to continue to look for ways to save money and turn that funding into additional inspectors on the ground.

NORRIS: Gary Schenkel is director of the Federal Protective Service. The GAO will deliver its final report on the state of the FPS in May.

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