Eight Years After 9-11, National Park Service Lacks Adequate Security Approach, According to GAO Report

Did Greenpeace activists capitalize on weaknesses in Park Service security to mount a protest on Mount Rushmore back in July? Greenpeace photo.

Despite years' old concerns that terrorists might strike at iconic units of the National Park System, the National Park Service's approach to security is haphazard, inefficient, and ineffective, according to a Government Accountablity Office report.

The nearly 50-page report, requested near the end of the Bush administration by members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Homeland Security and presented to the committee late this past August, paints a sordid picture of the Park Service's approach toward security. The agency does not take advantage of risk-management tools across the entire 391-unit park system; is limited in how it shares and coordinates information internally; lacks a service-wide approach to measuring and testing security systems and performance, and; lacks clearly defined security roles, states the report (attached below).

"More emphasis on key practices would provide greater assurance that Park Service assets are well-protected and that Park Service resources are being used efficiently to improve protection," notes the report. "Critical to advancing the Park Service's security efforts, a more comprehensive risk management approach and related guidance -- which are currently lacking -- would provide management with up-to-date information on threats and trends in security gaps and would allow management to target resources to address the greatest threats and vulnerabilities."

Park Service officials had little immediate response, saying that in addition to a three-page letter of response initially sent to the GAO that concurred with many of its findings, Interior and Park Service officials were preparing additional comments that they would forward directly to the House committee.

“Our primary concern about security and safety in the national park system is about our visitors and our employees, and that’s on people’s minds every day," Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said Wednesday.

He could not say, however, whether weaknesses cited by the GAO report were capitalized upon by members of Greenpeace back in July when they climbed to the top of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and then rappeled down to unfurl a banner urging the Obama administration to confront global warming.

In the Park Service's Midwest Region office in Omaha, Nebraska, spokeswoman Patty Rooney could not discuss, for security reasons, whether the GAO's findings did indeed factor into the success of the Greenpeace activists.

There was "nothing directly tied to Rushmore in that sense," she said of the GAO report, adding, though, that "It's hard to talk around security issues without divulging security information that shouldn’t become public. So it’s hard to become specific in that sense.”

A final report still has not been issued on the Greenpeace incident.

Part of the problems the GAO report points to no doubt have some rooting in the Park Service's inadequate funding. Former Park Service Director Fran Mainella testified to a congressional committee in May 2005 that her agency's unfunded homeland security costs had surpassed $40 million a year. That's $40 million that Park Service officials have to find from somewhere else in their budget, she said.

Mr. Olson acknowledged that funding decisions are "a real challenge."

"You try to balance visitor and employee safety with access, resources, a lot of differences of opinion in the public about what needs the attention of security," he said. "Is it a monument itself, the rock and stone, or is it the people that work there, that visit there? That’s kind of an ongoing discussion.”

Among the GAO's findings:

* The Park Service, with assistance from Interior's OLES (Office of Law Enforcement and Security), has assessed risks and implemented security improvements at the five icons (Statue of Liberty National Monument, the Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Independence National Historical Park, and the National Mall) and some border parks, although we noted some cases in which recommended security measures were not implemented at icons and vulnerabilities remain. At other parks, however, risk assessments are done on an ad-hoc basis and the Park Service has not conducted a service-wide assessment of vulnerabilities. Instead, officials at individual parks use their discretion to request risk assessments from the Park Service or obtain them from other sources.

* The Park Service does not have guidance or standards that officials at individual icons and parks can use to leverage technology by evaluating the cost-effectiveness of security countermeasures. As a result, there is limited assurance that technology investments produce the greatest security benefits.

* The Park Service has information sharing and coordination arrangements with external organizations at the national, regional, icon, and park levels. However, the Park Service lacks comparable arrangements for internal security communications, and as a result, officials at icons and parks are not equipped to share information with one another on common security problems and solutions.

* The Park Service does not have a service-wide approach for routine performance measurement and testing of its security efforts. The Park Service has not established security performance measures and lacks an analysis tool that it could use to track performance measures such as the number of risk assessments conducted, change in the total number of security-related incidents, identified security staff, and security training courses provided and attended.

* Strategic human capital management is an area of concern because of the Park Service’s lack of clearly defined security roles and a security training curriculum. Although the Park Service requires regions to assign security responsibilities to law enforcement staff, and icon and park superintendents designate physical security coordinators, these staff do not have to meet any qualifications, demonstrate expertise, or undergo any specialized training, and oversight of their activities is limited.

* In order to better oversee and more efficiently manage the protection of the vast and diverse inventory of national icons and parks, we are recommending that the Secretary of the Interior take six actions. Specifically, the Secretary should instruct the Director of the National Park Service, in consultation with OLES, to develop and implement: (1) a more comprehensive, routine risk management approach for security; (2) guidance and standards for leveraging security technology; (3) an internal communications strategy for security to address communications gaps, including a time-line for the development of a service-wide Web portal for security; (4) a service-wide performance management and testing program that includes specific measures and an evaluation component; (5) a strategy for more clearly defining security roles and responsibilities within the Park Service; and (6) a service-wide security training program and related curriculum.

The House committee is expected to discuss the report in November.