WASHINGTON – The agency entrusted with protecting the U.S. homeland is having difficulty safeguarding its own headquarters, say private security guards at the complex.
The guards have taken their concerns to Congress, describing inadequate training, failed security tests and slow or confused reactions to bomb and biological threats.
For instance, when an envelope with suspicious powder was opened last fall at Homeland Security Department headquarters, guards said they watched in amazement as superiors carried it by 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, said Derrick Daniels, one of the first guards to respond to the incident.
"I had never previously been given training ... describing how to respond to a possible chemical attack," Daniels told The Associated Press. "I wouldn't feel safe nowhere on this compound as an officer."
Daniels was employed until last fall by Wackenhut Services Inc., the private security firm that guards Homeland's headquarters in a residential area of Washington. The company has been criticized previously for its work at nuclear facilities and transporting nuclear weapons.
Homeland Security officials say they have little control over Wackenhut's training of guards but plan to improve that with a new contract. The company defends its performance, saying the suspicious powder incident was overblown because the mail had already been irradiated.
Two senators who fielded complaints from several Wackenhut employees are asking Homeland's internal watchdog, the inspector general, to investigate.
"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. "It would be ironic, to say the least, if DHS were unable to secure its own headquarters."
Daniels left Wackenhut and 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.
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 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," he said. He declined, however, to address any of the current or former employees who have become whistleblowers.
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 also had improperly handled the transport of nuclear and conventional weapons.
Homeland Security is based at a gated, former Navy campus in a college neighborhood — several miles from the heavily trafficked streets that house the FBI, Capitol, Treasury Department and White House.
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, the former guard who responded 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.
Doyle said the concerns were overblown because all mail going to the Homeland Security complex is irradiated to kill anthrax. He said "the incident was resolved before anything was moved."
Daniels said that after the envelope was taken outside, and the order finally given to evacuate the potentially infected area, employees had already gone to lunch and had to be rounded up and quarantined.
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 Associated Press 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 and "I can assure you that if people fail the test they are let go."
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.