Is the Federal Building Safe?

While bureaucrats wrangle, employees worry.

ICOULD EASILY BRING A WEAPON into this building and gain access to virtually any target,” said the urgent voice on the phone, “It’s shocking. The lack of security is absolutely ridiculous.” This man is not a bank robber describing his next job. He’s a federal official appalled by the inadequate security measures at the Earle Cabell Federal Building downtown, the workplace of about 4,000 federal employees.

In August, a bomb threat phoned in to the 1RS office sent hundreds of panicked federal employees streaming onto the sidewalks of downtown Dallas. Out of several threats received since the Oklahoma attack, it was the first call deemed serious enough to prompt clearing the building. A few weeks later, federal authorities arrested a Tyler man who allegedly plotted to blow up an 1RS office in Austin, raising the anxiety level of workers in local federal offices.

“It’s harder to install the software in your computer than it is to build some types of these bombs,” says U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins.

Yet Cabell remains the largest “level four” federal building in America (housing high-risk ten-ants such as the judiciary, the 1RS, and the ATF) that does not have lobby screening using X-rays and metal detectors. Other level four buildings that don’t have lobby screening house only the judiciary and screen visitors outside their courtrooms, according to Bruce Beaty, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District.

After hearing from the concerned federal official, who did not want to be identified, two reporters from D Magazine re-cently checked out his charges. Though sawhorses prevent parking in the traffic lanes next to the building’s entrances on Jackson and Commerce streets, and concrete planters keep anyone from driving a car- or truck-bomb under the building’s overhang, visitors can walk into the building without any kind of screening. The first floor provides easy access to the 1RS taxpayer assistance office, and the first 12 floors allow unlimited access. It’s not until visitors hit the 13th floor that they must pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors manned by deputies of the U.S. Marshal’s office, most often sitting alone. Each federal courtroom is guarded by one armed bailiff, usually a retired police officer; but .during a jury trial, the bailiffs must bring the jury in and out, leaving the judge unprotected.

Checking out another of the officials concerns, the reporters, one of whom was carrying a large purse, took the elevator to the basement, where they easily entered the garage where judges and other officials park their cars. (Though the underground lot requires an entry card to open the gates, at least two employees say they have been followed into the lot by drivers without cards before the gates closed.)

For about six weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Marshal’s service moved its screening equipment to the first floor. But when federal funding ran out, the service was forced to cut back to its primary mission of protecting judges and their courtrooms. “We’ve been recommending these changes for years, but they weren’t funded,” Beaty says.

A meeting about building security in September prompted some changes. All Cabell Building employees will be issued a “universal” ID, visitors soon will be required to obtain passes on the first floor, security on the loading docks will be increased, and concrete “jersey barriers” will be installed outside the building.

But there are no plans to install screening equipment on the ground floor, which would cost $600,000 to $1 million to operate per year. Observers say the General Services Administration, the government landlord, is locked in a turf battle with the Marshal’s office over the question of who will provide security for the high-risk agencies.

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