Key federal agencies flunk test of security

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Undercover investigators used bogus credentials

WASHINGTON - Flashing fake law enforcement badges, two undercover operatives who claimed they were armed made their way recently to Attorney General Janet Reno's fifth-floor office after driving their van into the Justice Department's inner courtyard, which is off-limits to the public.

Their purpose wasn't nefarious. It was to test the federal government's security procedures.

The result? A flunking score by agencies running the gamut from the CIA and FBI to the Defense and State departments.

The undercover congressional investigators, working in pairs or threesomes, penetrated all 19 federal buildings they sought to enter with their bogus law enforcement credentials. They also obtained boarding passes and firearms permits to board planes at Washington's Reagan National Airport and the airport in Orlando, Fla. In each case, they claimed to be armed and were carrying briefcases - never searched - that were large enough to be packed with explosives.

The General Accounting Office, which is the congressional arm of Congress, is due to present its findings during a House Judiciary crime subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The GAO investigators, who passed themselves off as federal agents or police officers from New York City or Washington, assembled their bogus credentials by buying badges on the Internet or elsewhere and using computer graphics programs to create official-looking identification.

The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., had asked the GAO's Office of Special Investigations to examine the security risk presented by the use of stolen or counterfeit law enforcement credentials.

Mr. McCollum and the House Judiciary Committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., expressed dismay over the GAO's findings.

"This is a shocking report revealing a dangerous vulnerability plaguing thousands of people who work in our public buildings,'' Mr. Hyde said. "Complacency in matters of security is a serious threat to the orderly functioning of our government. I hope this startling report will focus new attention on enhancing our security of the public buildings housing our governmental agencies.''

Mr. McCollum summoned representatives from the 19 federal agencies to a closed-door briefing Tuesday to reveal the results of the investigation.

"I think they just sort of had their eyes opened, and what we need for the whole country is to have their eyes opened," he said in an interview.

"We in America are vulnerable to terrorist activity and to things we would prefer not to be; but we need to minimize that vulnerability and learn from this type of exercise," he said. "I think it is a tribute to our law enforcement and to our intelligence communities that we have not seen more incidents that have breached our security."

In a statement Wednesday, the FBI said it was implementing additional security measures for its headquarters and field offices, among them requiring non-FBI law enforcement agents to surrender their weapons prior to entering the bureau's headquarters"No specific threat gives rise to this announcement today," the bureau said in a statement. "The FBI appreciates the congressional focus on this important issue."

The Justice Department also has implemented new security measures, said spokeswoman Gretchen Michael. "Building security is a matter of balancing genuine security risks and the matter of access," she said. "The GAO's efforts have made us adjust that balance somewhat in light of the easy availability of falsified identification documents."

She declined to discuss the new security measures.

Mr. McCollum welcomed the actions. "I'm pleased they've made some adjustments here in 24 hours," he said. "I think that's great they are serious about this, as they should be."

He said his concerns over government security were prompted by the increased availability on the Internet and elsewhere of stolen and counterfeit law enforcement badges and credentials. "I think there's a lack of understanding that this is a problem. I would hope that out of this would come a fuller realization that this type of false identification is relatively easily accessible to a lot of people," he said.

The GAO is still working on its report and recommendations. But Mr. McCollum said it is imperative that security personnel receive better training.

During the private briefing for the affected government agencies, GAO officials said they used publicly available information from phone books and other directories to learn the whereabouts of Cabinet officials' offices before they entered the buildings. They also obtained information by calling the agencies.

"In all cases, our agents were able to enter the facility by being either waved around or through a [metal detector], without their person or bag being screened," said a GAO briefing document provided by congressional sources.

Mr. McCollum termed the Justice Department breach "one of the more blatant" uncovered by GAO, particularly the fact that the agents were permitted to park a van - "which could have, of course, contained explosives" - in the department's inner courtyard.

Preliminary GAO findings show in two instances, at the Justice and Defense departments, the undercover agents' vehicles weren't searched. In five instances, they were able to penetrate the offices of the Cabinet secretaries or agency heads, including at the Defense and Justice departments.

A Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity,noted the GAO investigators were unsuccessful in their first attempt to penetrate the Justice Department. "Everything worked according to plan. They were unable to get in," the official said.

The GAO document said only in three instances - at the CIA, Justice and State Departments - were the agents' first attempt at entry foiled. "Not because our undercover agents were suspected of being fraudulent, but rather because the 'appointment' our agents made with a person inside the facility did not work out the first time," the report said.

Bill Harlow, director of public affairs for the CIA, said that the undercover investigators were escorted into the agency's compound by armed officers and visited the gift shop and a small museum on the first floor.

"But at no time were they near any classified information or the offices of senior officials," Mr. Harlow said. "Of course, we take security very seriously."