WASHINGTON_Richard Bergendahl fights the war on terrorism in Los Angeles for $19,000 (Ã¢â€šÂ¬14,136) a year, one of the legions of ill-trained, low-paid private security guards protecting tempting terrorist targets. Down the block from his high rise is a skyscraper identified by President George W. Bush as a target for a Sept. 11-style airplane attack.
Bergendahl, 55, says he often thinks: "Well, what am I doing here? These people are paying me minimum wage."
The security guard industry found itself involuntarily transformed after September 2001, from an army of "rent-a-cops" to protectors of the homeland. Yet, many security officers are paid little more than restaurant cooks or janitors.
And the industry is governed by a maze of conflicting state rules, according to a nationwide survey by The Associated Press. Wide chasms exist among states in requirements for training and background checks. Tens of thousands of guard applicants were found to have criminal backgrounds.
"A security officer is ... not trained to be a G.I. Joe," said Paul Maniscalco, a senior research scientist at George Washington University.
More than five years after the attacks, Maniscalco is helping to change the security guard culture. He recently developed an anti-terrorism computer course for shopping mall guards, who are being taught they now have more concerns than rowdy teenagers and shoplifters.
The middle ground pay for security officers in 2006 was $23,620 (Ã¢â€šÂ¬17,573), according to a new Labor Department survey. The low pay reflects cutthroat competition among security firms, who submit the lowest possible bids to win contracts. Lowball contracts also mean lower profit margins and less money for training and background checks for guards.
Some states require FBI fingerprint checks for every guard job applicant. Others let the industry police itself. These states don't regulate the industry: Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Kentucky, Wyoming and Idaho. The city of Boise and many Idaho communities do regulate guards. Some states require background checks for company owners but not guards.
In states that keep such records, the AP found more than 96,000 of 1.3 million applicants, about 7.3 percent, were turned down - mostly, state officials said, for having criminal histories.
The most important number, however, can't be found: individuals convicted of serious crimes who were hired in states without background checks or in states where they slipped through the system.
Congressional investigators reported last year that 89 private guards working at two military bases had histories that included assault, larceny, possession and use of controlled substances and forgery. The Army says it has purged guards with criminal histories from its bases.
"I frankly was shocked, after 25 years in the FBI; I assumed those in the private sector had gone through criminal background checks," said Jeffrey Lampinski, the former FBI special-agent-in-charge of the Philadelphia office who is now an executive with AlliedBarton Security Services.
The security businesses' own trade group, representing the largest firms, acknowledges the industry as a whole isn't ready to recognize signs of terrorism and respond to an attack.
"I would have to say no," said Joseph Ricci, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, when asked whether most guards are trained to protect the homeland. "Companies that hire private guards began spending more for security after September 11, 2001, but then began cutting back. We've become complacent because we haven't had attacks."