No Way To Protect Your Homeland

Something is dreadfully wrong when an arsonist can gain access to the Texas governor’s residence long enough to toss a Molotov cocktail and escape.

The 152-year old mansion, a national landmark, was vacant because it was undergoing renovations. No one was hurt in the blaze, which broke out about 1:15 a.m. June 8, but significant damage, including loss of the roof, was done to the historic building which served as home to every Lone Star State governor going back to the first, Sam Houston.

Arson was suspected before the last embers were extinguished, but it took a week before the state fire marshals disclosed that its infrared perimeter alarm system, which would have immediately detected the presence of an intruder and alerted police, was not working. Neither were many of the video cameras that would have immediately pinpointed the arsonist, who remains at large. The best authorities have is a shot of a figure lighting an object and hurtling it onto the front porch.

What makes matters even worse is that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) was aware the security systems were not working at least four weeks ago. The simple job of getting it fixed, according to the Houston Chronicle, ran into an appalling level of bureaucracy that should serve as a warning for anyone charged with managing security.

Get ready to roll your eyes. While DPS identified the problem with the security system, it was the job of the Texas Facilities Commission, which oversees the design, construction and renovation of state buildings, to inspect the system and arrange for its repair. Yet while the Facilities Commission has all the expertise on security technology—and is the first agency called when there’s a problem -- it has no authority over security policies and processes. DPS, for its part, claims it has no authority to independently repair security equipment in public buildings. Things devolve from there. The Facilities Commission says it advised DPS to place more personnel on the Governor’s Mansions grounds while the system was being repaired. DPS, claiming it is being unfairly blamed for the fire, says the state government is routinely unresponsive to complaints about equipment failures.

Somebody needs to be smacking heads here. The Texas Governor’s Mansion was firebombed. The fact that it was unoccupied at the time mitigates little. Not only should we be concerned that an arsonist was able to get through, we should be appalled at the massive organizational problems the attack exposed when it comes to protecting assets. How many other buildings, bridges and public attractions are vulnerable because the state can’t figure out who’s in charge of fixing basic safeguards such cameras and access control? This does not engender confidence in the Texas state government’s ability to protect its people or its infrastructure.

Finally, a spectacle such as this only increases cynicism about security policies in general. When governments ask citizens to tolerate surveillance cameras on every street corner, when it seeks to monitor our calls and e-mails without a warrant, when it seizes baby formula at airport check points, its “we-must-surrender-some-of-our-privacy-for-national-security” argument wears thin when it proves so inept at protecting genuine high-profile targets.

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