Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Secure are Secure Facilities?

How Secure are Secure Facilities?

By Dennis D. McDonald

One of the things I've learned from reading and listening to the thoughts of my friend Martin McKeay, a security expert, is that the best technology can be undone by poorly or incompletely implemented processes.

I may have run into an example of this over the weekend when I drove a friend of mine from Alexandria to the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

I lived in Bethesda at one time so I thought I would know my way around when I got there. Not so. Downtown Bethesda has changed radically since my time there and the NIH campus itself has undergone a major transformation.

Chief among these changes is the added security around NIH. The entire campus is now surrounded by a fence. The lofty and once-futuristic National Library of Medicine is now viewed from behind metal grates; it reminded me of a set from Aeon Flux.

My friend had originally wanted me to just to drop him off outside. We realized as we hunted for an open entry gate -- it was the weekend and most of the gates were closed -- that getting to his meeting was going to be much more complex than we had originally thought.

We drove around and around and finally found an open gate and got in line between a stream of other visiting cars waiting for a security check.

Approaching the security facility we saw numerous passenger gates similar to security checkpoints at airports. I immediately thought one thing -- were there any holes in my socks?

But no, we didn't have to get out of the car. After a brief delay we drove to the sheltered front of the line, sat, waited, and handed over our drivers' licenses so background checks could be run. No one asked why we were visiting.

I popped the trunk open so it could be inspected. And waited. Eventually a guard walked over with a wand and cloth attachment and ran it around on the steering wheel (checking for explosive or chemical residue I assume). She walked over to a large device with a set of doors and windows on the front and detached the cloth from the wand, ready to feed it into the machine. A large sign above the slot said something like RUN SCANNER WITH WINDOW CLOSED.

She left the window open and ran the scanner. The cloth was clean. (For some reason the scene from GHOSTBUSTERS popped into my mind where the Containment Device was demonstrated and Dan Aykroid announces after a high tech button-and-lever ritual, "... the trap is clean!")

I told my friend under my breath, "I'll be really upset of they check the trunk but don't check under the hood."

The checked the trunk but not under the hood.

The guards returned shortly and handed the drivers' licenses over along with badge holders and a purple photocopy announcing that THIS VEHICLE HAS BEEN INSPECTED which was set on my dashboard.

We drove through and started hunting for the right building and proceeded to get totally lost. We finally found it. I dropped my friend off and got lost again trying to find my way back to one of the few gates that was actually open; most of the traffic signs pointing to EXIT took me to closed off gates and raised anti-vehicle pylons. The word "breadcrumbs" floated through my head at one point when I passed by the same corner three times.

Finally I made it out and was on my way home. No one checked me off as I left but that might have occurred automatically; I'm assuming someone observing remote control TV's had seen my car circling aimlessly around the campus trying to get out so when I finally left there was probably a collective sigh of relief.

Of course it's sad that a facility -- and national treasure -- like NIH has to implement such security procedures.  It's a sign of the times in which we live. But I would be dishonest of I said I had any confidence in the procedures I underwent. How effective was the scanning machine? Why weren't we asked to get out of the car and walk through a metal detector? Why didn't they check under the hood of my car? When they researched my driver's license did they find a link to my blog?

The whole experience reminded me of the time I spent years ago on a consulting project in Cairo, Egypt. I was staying in an apartment building across the street from the U.S. Embassy. Day and night I could see cars waiting in line at the Embassy to havemirrors run underneath the car, have guests patted down, and have both trunk AND hood inspected. I never would have dreamed that similar methods would have to be implemented one day at one of the world's most advanced and influential medical research facilities.


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