Hostility Against Federal Workers Troubles Officials A House panel this week examines the safety of government workers in the wake of the latest attacks on government buildings. The agency responsible for protecting federal offices says it has worked to improve training, but other factors — including an angry political climate — concern authorities.
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Hostility Against Federal Workers Troubles Officials

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Hostility Against Federal Workers Troubles Officials

Hostility Against Federal Workers Troubles Officials

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Three attacks on U.S. government employees this year have officials in Washington worried about the safety of federal workers. The agency responsible for protecting them says it has worked to improve training, but other factors including a rise in hate groups and an angry political climate have some federal offices on edge. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The images from Austin, Texas, last month were frightening and familiar thick, black smoke pouring out of an office building housing the IRS, that had been attacked by a man in an airplane. Agent Andrew Jacobson was inside the office. He thought a bomb had gone off.

Mr. ANDREW JACOBSON (Agent, Internal Revenue Service): There were two explosions: one with the initial impact of the plane against the building, and then a second explosion when the fuel like, the fuel tanks went up. You know, there was a wave of heat that hit, and then the ceiling tiles fell in on me. And then black smoke started pouring in through the ceiling tiles that had been knocked out, and the lights went out and, you know, from that point it was pretty chaotic.

NAYLOR: The attack killed IRS employee Vernon Hunter, a 27-year veteran of the agency, as well as the pilot, a man said to have had a beef over taxes.

A few weeks later, another man with a beef with the government opened fire outside an entrance to the Pentagon, wounding two Pentagon guards before being killed. In January, a U.S. courthouse security guard in Las Vegas was killed and a deputy marshal injured by another gunman, possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits.

The attacks were all random; the attackers, clearly disturbed. But they point to a troubling trend, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): There is a real upsurge in anger and threats directed at the IRS and other government agencies. As a matter of fact, there have been so many threats directed at judicial officials that in fact, the U.S. Marshals Service opened a special clearinghouse to keep track of them.

NAYLOR: Potok directs the poverty center's intelligence unit, which tracks hate groups. The center reported this month that 2009 saw a dramatic surge in the number of such extremist groups.

Mr. POTOK: We've seen, in particular, a huge growth in the so-called patriot movement, that includes militias out there. And I think that some of the violence we've seen, such as the Pentagon shooter and the IRS, are at least in some way a reflection of that rage.

NAYLOR: Potok says there are now more than 500 patriot and militia groups active in the U.S., more than triple the number in 2008.

At a congressional hearing yesterday, Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly blasted politicians who empathized with the February IRS attacker.

Representative GERALD CONNOLLY(Democrat, Virginia): Incredibly, some political figures offered a tacit defense of that terrorist attack. One such individual was recorded as saying, quote: I think if we'd abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn't have had a target for his airplane, unquote.

NAYLOR: That individual was Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa, who was not at the hearing. Contacted by NPR, his office sent a transcript of a newspaper interview in which King said acts of violence have no place in our society. King went on, quote: When someone finds themselves in this position of extreme frustration with the IRS, which I do understand, they should do what I did, and get involved in the process.

Meanwhile, the IRS says it has reviewed security in its offices, and the Federal Protective Service, which oversees guards at thousands of government facilities, says it has improved its training procedures.

In Austin, the IRS has moved into new offices. Agent Andrew Jacobson says he does not worry about another attack.

Mr. JACOBSON: We can't let that stop us from doing our jobs and if anything, I think this has made everyone a little bit more resolute.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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