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Questioning the Vulnerability of Federal Buildings

There are moments in life that form foundations for future actions. Perhaps, on a personal note, the moment of the announcement of the bombing at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was that moment for me. When Terry Nicols and Timothy McVeigh detonated the ammonium nitrate truck bomb that killed 168 people, including 15 children, and injured more than 800 the morning of April 19, 1995, it moved me beyond any moment in my life until September 11th. At the time it was the worst terrorist attack on American soil and it remains the worst act of domestic terrorism. It was a personal moment made more so by the fact that a friend, an F.B.I. agent counseling local businesses on industrial espionage, was originally from Oklahoma City and immediately rushed home to be part of the team.

In the immediate aftermath of the Murrah attack, there was an increased visible presence of security at federal office buildings. X-rays machines, magnetometers and credentials checks became the norm at federal buildings.

Tightened security soon became a familiar sight at federal buildings throughout the nation, with policies quickly implemented to prevent similar attacks. Facilities in major cities were ordered to immediately erect Jersey walls to restrict the proximity of vehicles, and construction standards for new federal buildings were changed to require car bomb-resistant barriers and setbacks from surrounding streets.

From that point forward, unencumbered access to federal buildings and later, after September 11th, many civilian/corporate facilities was no longer possible. The attack on the Murrah Building also led to the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub.L.No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996)(the Act), is the culmination and amalgamation of disparate legislative efforts, some them stretching back well over a decade. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and to a lesser extent the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, supplied the most obvious stimuli for its enactment, but concern over other issues like habeas corpus and immigration contributed to its passage as well.

Following September 11th, the Federal Protective Services charged with providing guards and law enforcement personnel to federal buildings was moved from the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service to the Department of Homeland Security under Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Recently, a report from the GAO was publicized criticizing the federal protective service and highlighting the fact that federal buildings were unguarded and therefore vulnerable to attack (the actual report can be found here).

The Government Executive article highlights the fact that under DHS, budget constraints have led to a 20% reduction in force, with a virtual elimination of the in-house law enforcement officer position.

"There are not Federal Protective Service officers or inspectors at every building; in fact, many buildings do not have FPS officers at all and some do not see FPS officials for months at a time," Goldstein says (Mark Goldstein is with GAO Director of Physical Infrastructure). "Clearly, the main line of defense and protection and security at any federal building is the contract guard force."

The continuing issue is one of budget, safety and allocation of resources according to risk. A physical presence is logically more important than some of the new ID credentialing requirements that are now in place. One thing is clear however. Without adequate professional staffing to provide security, and maybe more importantly to be aware of those people who might be surveilling the areas, these buildings are vulnerable. Federal buildings are the so-called “soft targets.” In more than one briefing, the importance of being able to “watch the watchers” was raised.

It is odd how certain events lead one to take personal actions of life changing magnitude. The bombing of the Murrah Building in 1995 led to my own exploration of various types of sensor and tracking technologies. This led me to seek out solutions and opportunities at one of our federal laboratories, and then brought me to meetings at the Force Protection Battlelab. Eventually, that resulted in my moving here after meeting my wife. Thirteen years has passed since the Murrah Building tragedy. The question is whether we’ve actually come full circle and whether, through budget cuts and bureaucracy, our federal buildings are now vulnerable once again.

2 Comments

While there is much ado about ID requirements to enter Federal Buildings, most are open to illegal aliens using consular IDs. But, in the light of the Murrah Building bombing, that is irrelevant. Most Federal Buildings don't have 100 feet of set back and are situated directly on the street. Even the new, green, federal building in San Francisco, which has some set back on one side, has no real set back on the alley side and about 25 feet on another side, much less the old federal building which has no set back or the DHS building and the Customs House in San Francisco which have no set back. The question is why terrorists have not used a truck bomb, not if they will.

For the moment, lets ignore if you can actually prove the statement about "illegal aliens using consular IDs."

1) You cannot move existing buildings from the street to create the set-back; you in many cases can place barriers (as they have at the Capitol Building)

2) Physical security, both in terms of barriers, but in the context of this discussion, eyes watching is the issue.

I won't offer an opinion on terrorist motives or strategies.

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