Jim Kouri
Obama: More terrorists tried in civilian courts in second term
By Jim Kouri
November 1, 2011

If President Barack Obama wins re-election in 2012 — and no longer has to juggle his different constituencies — look for him and his ideological Attorney General, Eric Holder, to push for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention center. Then once successful expect to see the trying of terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than military trials, according to some political and legal analysts.

Along with the likelihood that more and more terrorism and international organized crime suspects will be tried in the United States' federal court system in a second Obama term, the security of courtrooms and courthouses becomes more difficult in order to maintain unobtrusive protection and safety, according to political strategist and criminal defense attorney Mike Baker.

Also, as a symbol, federal courthouses represent to the world the United States' system of justice and its power to adjudicate matters of international importance.

Safe and accessible federal courthouses are critical to the U.S. judicial process. The Federal Protective Service (FPS), within the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, within the Department of Justice, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), and the General Services Administration are the federal agencies with key roles in securing federal courthouses.

As requested by the U.S. Congress, the Government Accountability Office analyzed the attributes that influence courthouse security considerations and the extent to which agencies have interacted and collaborated in implementing their responsibilities and using risk management.

The GAO analyzed laws and documents, such as security assessments; reviewed GAO's work on key practices for collaboration and facility protection; visited 11 courthouse facilities, selected based on geographic dispersion, age, size, and other criteria; and interviewed agency and judiciary officials.

While the results from site visits cannot be generalized, they provided examples of courthouse security activities.

Various attributes influence security considerations for the nation's 424 federal courthouses, which range from small court spaces to large buildings in major urban areas. According to DOJ data, threats against the courts have increased between fiscal years 2004 and 2010 — from approximately 600 to more than 1,400.

The Interagency Security Committee — an multi-agency group that develops standards for federal facility security — has assigned courthouses the highest security level because they are prominent symbols of U.S. power.

Federal agencies have taken steps to strengthen their collaboration, such as establishing agency liaisons, but have faced challenges in implementing assigned responsibilities and using risk assessment tools.

A 1997 memorandum of agreement (MOA) outlines each agency's role and responsibilities and identifies areas requiring interagency coordination. However, at 5 of the 11 courthouses GAO visited, FPS and the Marshals Service were either performing duplicative efforts (e.g., both monitoring the courthouse lobby) or performing security roles that were inconsistent with their responsibilities.

The judiciary and other entities stated that having the Marshals Service and FPS both provide security services has resulted in two lines of authority for implementing and overseeing security services. Updating the MOA that identifies roles and responsibilities could strengthen the multi-agency courthouse security framework by better accountability in collaborative efforts.

In 2008, Congress authorized a pilot program, whereby the Marshals Service would assume FPS's responsibilities to provide perimeter security at 7 courthouses. In October 2010, the judiciary recommended that the pilot be expanded. AOUSC noted general consensus among various agency leaders in support of the pilot and estimated the costs of expanding it, but AOUSC did not obtain FPS's views on assessing the pilot results or on how the expansion may affect FPS's mission.

Additional analysis on the costs and benefits of this approach and the inclusion of all agency perspectives could better position Congress and federal stakeholders to evaluate expansion options.

Meanwhile, the Marshals Service has not always completed court security facility surveys (a type of risk assessment), as required by Marshals Service guidance. At 9 of the courthouses GAO visited, the Marshals Service had not conducted these surveys, but Marshals Service officials at some courthouses told us that they assessed security needs as part of their budget development process.

However, these assessments are less comprehensive than the court security facility surveys required by Marshals Service guidance. FPS has faced difficulties completing its risk assessments, known as facility security assessments, and recently halted an effort to implement a new system for completing them.

In addition, the GAO found that the Marshals Service and FPS did not consistently share the full results of their risk assessments with each other and key members of other agencies involved in courthouse security. Sharing risk assessment information could better equip federal agencies to assess courthouses' security needs and make informed decisions.

GAO recommended that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice update the Memorandum of Understanding to, among other things, clarify agencies' roles and responsibilities and ensure the completion and sharing of risk assessments; and further assess costs and benefits of the perimeter pilot program, in terms of enhanced security, and include all views, should steps be taken to expand the program. DHS and DOJ concurred with GAO's recommendations.

© Jim Kouri


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Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police... (more)


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