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Guards Fault Homeland Security Protection

The Associated Press | March 6, 2006
By LARRY MARGASAK

WASHINGTON -- Guards at the Department of Homeland Security say the agency mishandled a potential anthrax attack on its headquarters, one of several incidents that led two senators to request an investigation of the agency's own security.

The private guards complained that inadequate training led to confusion in handling bomb and biological threats and failure to stop test vehicles that were sent to checkpoints with improper identification.

"I wouldn't feel safe nowhere on this compound as an officer," former guard Derrick Daniels told The Associated Press. Daniels was employed until last fall by Wackenhut Services Inc., the private firm that protects a Homeland Security complex that includes sensitive, classified information.

An envelope with suspicious powder was opened last fall at the headquarters. Daniels and other current and former guards said they were shocked when superiors carried it past the office of Secretary Michael Chertoff, took it outside and then shook it outside Chertoff's window without evacuating people nearby.

The scare, caused by white powder that proved to be harmless, "stands as one glaring example" of the agency's security problems, Daniels said. "I had never previously been given training ... describing how to respond to a possible chemical attack."

"If the allegations brought forward by the whistleblowers are correct, they represent both a security threat and a waste of taxpayer dollars," Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote to the agency's inspector general, seeking an investigation.

"It would be ironic, to say the least, if DHS were unable to secure its own headquarters," they wrote.

The IG's office had no immediate response to the request.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Doyle said Wackenhut guards are still operating under a contract signed with the Navy, and the agency has little control over their training. A soon-to-be-implemented replacement contract will impose new requirements on security guards, he said.

Daniels, saying he was among the first guards to respond to the white powder incident, said the area where the powder was found wasn't evacuated for more than an hour. Available biohazard face shields went unused. When a belated order was given to evacuate the area, employees had already gone to lunch and had to be rounded up and quarantined.

Doyle, the Homeland spokesman, said the concerns were overblown because all mail going to the Homeland Security complex is irradiated to kill anthrax. "The incident was resolved before anything was moved," he said.

Daniels now works security for another company at another federal building. He is among 14 current and former Wackenhut employees _ mostly guards _ who were interviewed by The Associated Press or submitted written statements to Congress that were obtained by AP.

Wackenhut President Dave Foley disputed the allegations, saying officers have a minimum of one year's security experience, proper security clearances and training in vehicle screening, identification of personnel, handling of suspicious items and emergency response.

"In short, we believe our security personnel have been properly trained, have responded correctly to the various incidents that have occurred ... and that this facility is secure," Foley said. He declined, however, to discuss any of the current or former employees who have become whistleblowers.

A litany of problems were listed by the guards, whose pay ranges from $15.60 to $23 an hour based on their position and level of security clearance. Among their examples of lax security:

_They have no training in responding to attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

_Chemical-sniffing dogs have been replaced with ineffective equipment that falsely indicates the presence of explosives.

_Vehicle entrances to Homeland Security's complex are lightly guarded.

_Guards with radios have trouble hearing each other, or have no radios, no batons and no pepper spray, leaving them with few options beyond lethal force with their handguns.

Wackenhut is no stranger to criticism.

Over the last two years, the Energy Department inspector general concluded that Wackenhut guards had thwarted simulated terrorist attacks at a nuclear lab only after they were tipped off to the test; and that guards had improperly handled the transport of nuclear and conventional weapons.

Homeland Security is based at a gated, former Navy campus near American University _ several miles from the heavily trafficked streets that house the FBI, Capitol, Treasury Department and White House.

Former guard Bryan Adams recognized his inadequate training one day last August, when an employee reported a suspicious bag in the parking lot.

"I didn't have a clue about what to do," he said.

Adams said he closed the vehicle checkpoint with a cone, walked over to the bag and called superiors. Nobody cordoned off the area. Eventually, someone called a federal bomb squad, which arrived more than an hour after the discovery.

"If the bag had, in fact, contained the explosive device that was anticipated, the bomb could have detonated several times over in the hour that the bag sat there," Adams said.

The bag, it turned out, contained gym clothes.

Doyle, the Homeland spokesman, responded to several allegations raised by the guards. He said dogs were replaced because "if you overuse them, their effectiveness drops." The detection equipment that substitutes for the dogs is a better method for detecting explosives, he said.

Guards who used the equipment said it was no match for the reliability of the dogs.

The AP videotaped two vehicle entrances at Homeland headquarters with light security.

One is guarded only during morning and evening rush hours. Movable metal barriers and an unmanned security vehicle only partially blocked the driveway, leaving enough room for a small car or motorcycle to drive through.

Another entrance was guarded with a manned vehicle with two guards but no other barriers.

Doyle said the vehicle entrances were adequate because, in all cases, a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire separates vehicles from all buildings.

Some guards who continue to work at Homeland, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because of fear of losing their jobs, said they knew of two instances in which individuals without identification got into the sensitive complex.

Another described how guards flunked a test by the Secret Service, which sent vehicles into the compound with dummy government identification tags hanging from inside mirrors. Guards cleared such vehicles through on two occasions, this guard said, and one officer even copied down the false information without realizing it was supposed to match information on the employee's government badge.

Doyle, the agency spokesman, said such tests are conducted routinely. "I can assure you that if people fail the test they are let go," he said.

Marixa Farrar, a former guard, said two guards always should have been stationed inside the main building where Chertoff had his office, but she often was on duty alone.

One day last fall a fire alarm rang. As employees walked by Farrar, they asked if this was a fire or a test.

"There were no radios, so I couldn't figure out if it was a serious alarm," she said.

There was no fire.


Last modified March 6, 2006




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