The vSANS instrument at the NIST NCNR. Photo: Fran Webber/NIST

Security at two campuses of the National Institute of Standards and Technology came under fire last month, when a Government Accountability Office report alleged their covert tests resulted in 15 breaches of the facilities, one of which houses a nuclear reactor for research.

But the NIST- Fraternal Order of Police Union that represents the dozen officers at the Gaithersburg, Md. site told Laboratory Equipment their staff has been cut in less than half in recent years – and their responsibilities have largely been taken over by a private security contractor that handles the points of entry in the Gaithersburg campus.

“For the last several years, NIST management has not replaced our workforce and they are slowly squeezing us out,” said Cpl. Dalia Kulowiec, chairwoman of the union. “(Instead), the government signed a multimillion-dollar contract for security guards to replace us and assume responsibility of the physical security of the campus.”

The private guards, the NIST cops say, don’t meet the same rigorous hiring and training standards, including training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

The NIST police force currently stands 12 officers to cover the Gaithersburg campus, which includes the nuclear reactor at the NIST Center for Neutron Research.

‘Turf war’
The force had a peak of 33 officers to cover the same 24-hour time frame seven years ago, said Brian Bregman, the attorney for the police union.

The security firm has gradually taken over many of the operations, Bregman explained.

“The security guard company was hired to assume responsibility for the gates and other entry points, while the police officers are being told to handle only internal duties,” Bregman told Laboratory Equipment. “The security guards are expanding and taking over almost all aspects of security, while the police force is shrinking and management is cutting back on their role and responsibilities.”

“It is clear to us that NIST and Commerce leadership want the police force abolished,” added the attorney. “It seems to be a turf war about who controls the money and who is in charge, because police officers are federal law enforcement professionals who are sworn to uphold the law, whereas security guards can be told to do anything.”

NIST referred requests for comment on the union’s allegations to the Department of Commerce, the overseeing agency. A Commerce spokesman who asked not to be named declined to answer a list of questions, but provided a short statement explaining that the Department had assumed the security duties in late 2015 under their Office of Security (OSY).

“Our only goal is providing high quality site security to protect the employees, contractors and visitors on NIST’s campuses,” the statement reads.

The GAO report was discussed by some members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Oct. 11. Behind closed doors, the members watched videos detailing the 15 separate breaches of parts of the facilities.

The GAO tests involved federal agents using “very basic espionage techniques,” according to the Congressional proceedings. The methods used for access were not shown, or discussed publicly.

“The evidence produced in these videos shines a light on the porous nature of NIST’s physical security, and are particularly concerning to the Committee, especially in light of the fact that the July 2015 meth lab explosion served to put NIST on notice that its physical security program was flawed,” said Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.).

No one Laboratory Equipment spoke to for this story seemed to know what the breaches were, or how they were effected.

Federal contracts for major company
The private security firm that has the security contracts for the two campuses is the Whitestone Group, an Ohio-based firm that is a source of security services for multiple federal agencies.

The Whitestone Group declined to answer questions from Laboratory Equipment concerning the union’s allegations of the blame for the breaches – but did provide a statement about the GAO report’s findings.

“We are working with our client, the Department of Commerce, as they continue to enhance security at the NIST Gaithersburg and Boulder campuses,” the company stated. “Whitestone is fully prepared to enact these new security protocols and will do our part to ensure security at the NIST sites.”

Whitestone amassed $41.7 million in federal contracts in 2016, the latest year available – and most of that work was for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation, according to public records available through the website Inside Gov.

Whitestone contracts for Department of Commerce security services total $7.19 million from 2011 through 2016, according to those same records, though only some stipulate specific security duties for NIST.

Whitestone contended the numbers were not accurate, but did not highlight the inaccuracies in the public records, adding they do not publicly disclose the company’s financial information. 

A lawsuit Whitestone filed against the U.S. Department of Energy in 2015 was based on the termination of an employee at the Argonne National Labs, who had brought a successful whistleblower complaint, alleging she was fired in retaliation for pointing out a hire made without a background check, among other lapses. The Whitestone was dismissed by a granting of summary judgment in March, letting the whistleblower complaint stand.