WASHINGTON – Not long after national debate raged on the use of foreign entities to operate critical U.S. infrastructures, the Department of Homeland Security has made an about face, dumping a British-based security firm that was contracted to protect the buildings where U.S. domestic security policy is formed.
DHS had received a variety of complaints about Wackenhut Services, Inc., and was supposed to sign a new security contract on April 1. Instead, Paragon Systems of Chantilly, Va., announced last week it was getting the five-year, $29 million contract.
"I welcome the news that the Department of Homeland Security is finally starting to get serious about its own security," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., praised the department's switch. "We will keep a close eye on the new contractor and make sure that higher standards equal better security at the department tasked with keeping our nation secure."
Wackenhut, however, isn't gone from the U.S. grid. A wholly-owned subsidiary of the Wackenhut Corporation, which in 2002 merged with a Danish security conglomerate, now known as Group 4 Securicor and based in London, England, Wackenhut Services Inc., has had security contracts throughout federal, state and local governments for decades.
Among the U.S. sites where Wackenhut provides security are no fewer than 30 nuclear power plants, a number of Army bases and some nuclear weapons facilities. The deal with DHS was reportedly worth $9 million a year.
Foreign Ownership to Blame?
Earlier in the year, a contract for Dubai Ports World to run terminals in six U.S. ports was scuttled after outcries that national security was being turned over to one of the monarchs in the United Arab Emirates. Criticism was rampant of a U.S. government that would allow sensitive U.S. facilities and other sites vulnerable to attacks to be operated by foreign-owned firms. The terminals DP World wanted to run had been previously operated by British-owned Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., without complaint
But the increased scrutiny helped bring notice to other relationships, and Wackenhut's recent troubles were highlighted by the fact that it is foreign-owned.
In February, Dorgan and Wyden wrote to DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner about the security problems with Wackenhut. The request for review came at nearly the same time the two, and a long list of other lawmakers, urged President Bush to block the DP World deal.
"It is still a mystery why the department charged with keeping the homeland secure finds it necessary to contract out its own headquarters building security," Dorgan said after DHS announced it was dropping Wackenhut. "It is, however, a step in the right direction that they are dumping the firm that demonstrated so vividly its inability to do the job."
Wackenhut has a staff of 8,000 employees in the United States and has provided security across the government spectrum since the corporation was founded in Florida in 1960, according to its Web site. John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a clearinghouse for national security information and intelligence, said Wackenhut has done a solid job in providing private security to the government for many years and cannot be judged by the recent uproar. He discounted its foreign ownership as cause for concern.
"They had the space shuttle contract 25 years ago," said Pike, whose background is with NASA. "It's a well-respected company, it's been around for a long time and they know what they are doing."
But watchdog Peter Stockton, a former security adviser to the secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration and an expert with the Project on Government Oversight, a nuclear energy watchdog, said the sensitive nature of protecting the country's critical infrastructure should lead the government to think twice about handing security contracts over to any foreign entity — even those from friendly London, England.
"Wackenhut knows the capabilities of all our nuclear power plants and weapons facilities and you really don’t want that info to go any father than it has to go," he said.
A Wackenhut spokesman was unavailable for comment for this article, company officials said, but the corporation's Web site stresses that when Wackenhut merged with the foreign conglomerate in 2002, it was subjected to U.S. law that requires the subsidiary to remain separate from its parent company.
"There is absolutely no foreign control or influence over any part of WSI," the Web site states. "Additionally, any contact including communication — no matter how casual — that WSI’s employees have with the parent company or other affiliates/subsidiaries must be fully reported and is reviewed by the United States government."
More Than Just Questionable Parentage
The soured deal with DHS isn’t the only Wackenhut contract that has fallen under scrutiny. In February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's nuclear power plants, announced an inspection into the Turkey Point facility in Florida, where Wackenhut guards are employed. The NRC would not comment beyond a press release that cited "significant issues" at Turkey Point.
According to The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania, the NRC also plans to investigate the Wackenhut security forces at Three Mile Island nuclear plant, focusing on fitness-for-duty issues like fatigue and sleeping on the job.
Dan Dorman, director of the security operations division of the NRC, said he could not talk about specific investigations into Wackenhut.
"There are sites that have Wackenhut security that have had good [security] programs and others that have had not so good programs," Dorman said. "It varies from site to site. [Wackenhut] has not stood out either way."
Dorman said Wackenhut's foreign parentage is not the cause for concern. "The individuals who are running the security undergo rigorous background checks and are subject to ongoing fitness for duty programs," he said.
If not its ownership, Wackenhut's employees have been subject of considerable concern.
In February, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Wackenhut security guards at the Nevada test site flunked a drill in which mock terrorists attacked the site. In Tennessee last September, during confusion over whether it was a real attack, a guard accidentally discharged live ammunition in what was supposed to be a drill at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, wrote The New York Times.
Also in February, two rifles were stolen from the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant in Florida, reported The Associated Press. Two years before, six Wackenhut guards were removed from duty there after an audit found they were skipping part of their rounds.
Guards who came forward about DHS lapses said security there has failed periodic drills, too. In March, several current and former guards went to members of Congress with charges ranging from lax gate and building security, fatigued guards, lack of training, and in one case, the inappropriate handling of mail containing a possible toxic substance that later turned out to be a false alarm.
"Wackenhut has not been a good steward," watchdog Stockton said
Prior to the new contract announcement, DHS spokesman Brian Doyle said he could not speak to Wackenhut's other government contracts, but the company has "been a good partner" in its work at DHS. He added that Wackenhut had been working from protocols that hadn't been updated by the government since DHS took over the Navy Yard facilities in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
"There is more than enough evidence that we have good security … these issues were addressed quickly and efficiently," Doyle said of the complaints.
Pike said a lot of security companies have "had growing pains" as they've been expected to expand, adjust and become more cost-effective following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "I think generally, it is well respected in the field and the question of where the corporation is currently headquartered is not a significant factor one way or another," he said of Wackenhut.
As for other facilities, Lawrence Brede, senior vice president for Department of Energy operations at Wackenhut, testified before Congress in July about the training and competency of Wackenhut guards at the nation's nuclear weapons plants. He said he was assured they had the most professional, ready force available, and as a former U.S military man, he would vouch for it.
"Our protective forces are well trained … as capable as any of the military forces with which I have served," Brede testified. "In fact, the majority of protective force officers with whom I am familiar come from a military or law enforcement background, and bring with them the skills that are necessary for the protections of our national security."
Critics continue to argue that Wackenhut's less-than-sterling record in a post Sept. 11 environment means the government should not be taking chances.
"People are really shocked to find out that our government has contracted homeland security to a company with such a troubling record," said Gina Bowers, spokeswoman for the SEIU, the nation's largest security officers' union, which tracks Wackenhut on its Web site.
"Why are they the U.S government's number one supplier of homeland security? There has got to be someone out there that can do this better," Bowers added.
Wackenhut's Web site counters that SEIU is running a smear campaign because it wants to unionize Wackenhut's guards. Bowers has rejected the idea that the SEIU is actively trying to organize at Wackenhut, however, an SEIU Web site takes aim at Group 4 Securicor, Wackenhut's international parent, for what it calls efforts by the company to prevent unionizing at its global shops.