Since the Sept. 11 attacks, local residents have been witness to beefed-up security at the Presidio Army base in Monterey, home to the Defense Language Institute.
In the name of homeland security, residents accepted the inconvenience when the road cutting through the base to Pacific Grove was closed to the public. New fences were erected around the Army base's perimeter and the Private Bolio gate on Lighthouse Avenue was staffed with specially trained security guards.
But those guards are not soldiers -- they are civilians hired and trained by a private contractor that was never in the security business before landing more than $1 billion in homeland security contracts.
Now, congressional investigators have reported that the Army hired companies that repeatedly botched and even falsified their training records and procedures, and have placed people with criminal records as security guards at U.S. military bases.
It is not known if the security breeches occurred at the Presidio of Monterey, but at each of 11 bases investigated by the Government Accountability Office, including three that have contracts with the same company used in Monterey, significant security problems were found.
In a report released last week, the GAO said 89 guards were hired at two bases despite having criminal records that included assaults and other felonies. One hired guard had an outstanding warrant, the report said.
Investigators said they discovered the Army could not confirm that guards had been thoroughly trained, or in some cases, even that they had been trained at all.
In several cases involving the same company that provides staff to the Presidio, the contractor certified that guards had completed training before they had finished their courses.
In one case now under investigation by the Defense Department, the contractor falsified the training records, the report said.
The private contracts were started after Sept. 11, when the Pentagon, short on troops and time, needed to beef up security at U.S. installations.
"It sounds very similar to reports about sloppy background checks for TSA employees," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, said Friday as he returned to the Monterey area for the Congressional spring recess.
"It's often the same old story with this administration," he said. "They're in such a rush to put more security up or implement a new policy that sloppy work is the result."
The Pentagon has not disputed the claims and has agreed to take remedial action.
The GAO declined to say where specific breeches occurred or which of several companies was responsible.
"We would view that as a security issue," said Michele Mackin, an assistant director at the Washington-based agency.
But a company document from Chenega Integrated Systems -- the same firm that handles the Presidio's guard staffing -- indicates there were training problems with each of its three contracts investigated by the GAO. The Presidio contract was not one of those.
Because outside companies such as Chenega conduct their own training, "the Army cannot say with certainty whether training is actually taking place," the GAO report said.
Asked if the Presidio has ever had problems with Chenega staff, Jim Laughlin, the base's chief of police and director of emergency services, said, "In truth, the Presidio of Monterey enjoys an exceptionally close relationship with the Chenega supervisors, which has precluded a number of problems over time."
Laughlin said he could not divulge how many Chenega employees work at the base for security reasons.
The Presidio staff did not make the decision to hire a private firm and had no say in which company was awarded the contract, according to the GAO. That was all negotiated at the Pentagon level.
NPS uses Defense personnel
Not all bases or military services have used private contractors. The Naval Postgraduate School said it has only Defense Department employees at its gates. An NPS public affairs office spokesman said the school's guards are masters at arms -- military police trained in force protection and antiterrorism tactics.
A request for comment from Chenega went unanswered. But in a written response published on the company's Web site, Chenega said it had not hired "known felons," though it acknowledged it had incorrectly certified trainees before they finished their programs. The company said all of the students completed their training.
The GAO has asked the Pentagon to adopt seven recommendations, which
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld agreed to implement.
Among security issues the recommendations seek to address is the Army's role in monitoring the guards' performance. In many cases, the report said, the Army failed to perform regular security tests, such as attempting to pass through a gate with false identification.
Investigators said the criminal-background checks conducted by the contractors relied on the assumption applicants were telling the truth about their past. Instead of checking federal criminal databases, contractors contacted local police departments where applicants had lived. If a trainee omitted a previous address in the application, the GAO said, the company would not know where to look.
According to the Army's contract, the guards are allowed to start work after the initial criminal check. The Army is then supposed to perform a more thorough investigation. But the GAO found that in some cases, the Army hadn't done background checks two years later.
Eye on contract staff
Laughlin said the Presidio has been diligent monitoring the contract staff's performance.
"As the contract officer technical representative, the (Presidio of Monterey) Police Department maintains close supervision of the contract performance," he said.
He said the Presidio is already doing what the GAO has recommended.
"Insofar as (the GAO) recommendations apply to the installation level, we are clearly in compliance at the Presidio of Monterey," he said. "Several recommendations apply at echelons above installation level."
Farr said his office will continue to look into the contractor issues.
"The GAO is a respected investigative agency and I take this report very seriously," he said.
Congress and the GAO plan to come back and check on the Army's compliance in a few months, and will likely issue another report by June.
Among the recommendations is a requirement to use the FBI's national criminal database in background checks.
Asked if criminal charges are possible concerning one contractor's falsified training reports, the GAO's Mackin said, "The DOD is investigating. We're not finished yet."
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 646-1187 or email@example.com.
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