WASHINGTON -- A labor union is reporting significant security problems at Letterkenny Depot in Pennsylvania and six other Army bases where federal contractors are guarding the gates, freeing up soldiers to serve in Iraq.
Based on interviews with 15 current and former guards, the Service Employees International Union says job screening is often inadequate and that security checks at the gates are frequently cursory because staffing levels are too low.
The Wackenhut security company says the union is leveling false allegations in a national campaign aimed at signing up the firm's 35,000 guards as SEIU members.
The bases are:
- Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Ala.
- Fort Leavenworth, Leavenworth, Kan.
- Fort Leonard Wood, Waynesville, Mo.
- Fort Monmouth, Red Bank, N.J.
- Picatinny Arsenal, Dover, N.J.
- Letterkenny Depot, Chambersburg, Pa.
- Fort Lee, Petersburg, Va.
One of the labor union's complaints is that the security tasks are performed under a no-bid contract, which the Army awarded to Alutiiq, a minority-owned firm in Alaska. Alutiiq subcontracted much of the work to Wackenhut.
Wackenhut, a U.S. subsidiary of a London-based company, is the second-largest security business in the United States. Its customers mostly are major private corporations, but it also does hundreds of millions of dollars worth of work each year for the federal government.
The Army praised Alutiiq and Wackenhut, saying they are maintaining a high level of security at the bases.
The Army has agreed to pay Alutiiq $180 million over two years for security work at 16 bases. Alutiiq splits the money with Wackenhut.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress allowed no-bid contracts due to "urgent and compelling" operational requirements. In the case of the Army base security contracts, the need was the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The SEIU's allegations are just another tactic in a barrage of unwarranted attacks by a union against a Native American company trying to do its part in helping keep our military infrastructure safe and secure," Alutiiq said in a statement.
"Certainly there are disgruntled employees, but it's a disservice to the 1,300 hardworking men and women who are doing an admirable job every day," Dick Hobbs, the company's executive vice president, said in an interview Tuesday.
Wackenhut says the Army dictates the staffing levels for each shift and that the companies apply a standard formula to determine the number of security officers required. On occasion, guards are asked to work overtime when replacements are being hired and trained.
Ana Granbury, a guard at Redstone Arsenal, said, "The company hires, issues a weapon and has an officer working before they have even completed a background check."
The Army says civilian guards undergo the same background check procedures as Pentagon civilian security personnel.
They are hired conditionally with a preliminary local investigation. The complete background check can take several months, the Army says, and if it turns up any problems, the guard is subject to removal.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act, contract guards are trained, equipped, rated on their performance and disciplined comparably to Defense Department civilian workers performing the same tasks, the Army says.
Among the complaints by the 15 guards:
-"If you notice something that isn't right and report it, you can be dealt with very harshly," said Michael Liang, a fired security worker who signed on for duty after his son-in-law, a New York City firefighter, died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Liang said: "The training was completely inadequate, especially regarding weapons handling. There was zero time at the firing range."
-"When I was manning these gates with the military, we had between 20 to 25 officers," said Stacy Adams, a guard at Fort Leavenworth. "But the normal operation for this management is 10 to 14."
-Before the private-security takeover, Army personnel carried M-16 rifles to secure the gate at Picatinny Arsenal. After Alutiiq-Wackenhut took over, no one was equipped with anything more than a handgun, reported guard Dennis Brizak.
(c) Associated Press