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Feds alarmed by anti-government movement

Mar. 22, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By GREGG CARLSTROM   |   Comments
"When people observe the wasteful practices generally perpetuated by Congress, they associate that with a wasteful, incompetent government, and, of course, those working in the government," says Sandy Ressler, a federal program manager.
"When people observe the wasteful practices generally perpetuated by Congress, they associate that with a wasteful, incompetent government, and, of course, those working in the government," says Sandy Ressler, a federal program manager. (Colin Kelly / Staff)

Four days after a gunman shot two federal policemen near the Pentagon entrance, federal employee Sandy Ressler posted a short essay online, expressing dismay at what appeared to be an increasingly hostile climate for government workers.

"I work for the government and I am NOT the enemy," read his March 8 post on the social networking site GovLoop. Ressler, a program manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, lamented that the country is becoming "more and more polarized" and worried about growing misperceptions about federal employees. His post generated scores of sympathetic comments from fellow federal employees.

Their concerns are justified: Weapons violations on federal properties increased by 10 percent over the last year; threats against IRS facilities are up by 11 percent. And while threats are up, the level of protection at federal buildings is down. The Federal Protective Service has shrunk by 15 percent over the last seven years; hundreds of IRS buildings have no security at all.

Dozens of employees interviewed by Federal Times over the last two weeks say they have been concerned for months about security. They're worried about the anti-government rhetoric in the U.S.; they fear that the public is developing an impression of federal employees as overpaid, lazy and controlling.

"Fed-bashing may be the only true bipartisan issue," said Kenneth Goldman, a manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Worse, many say they fear violence against feds has been legitimized. They blame that on a number of culprits extremist groups, the media and even some politicians.

Several feds cited an incident last month in Austin, Texas, where a man named Joe Stack flew his small plane into the IRS building in an act of anti-government terrorism. Dozens of Facebook groups praising Stack's actions sprang up shortly after the crash; Stack's daughter, Samantha Bell, defended her father's motives in a television interview days after the crash.

"If nobody comes out and speaks out on behalf of injustice, then nothing will ever be accomplished," she said. "But I do not agree with his last action, with what he did. But I do agree about the government."

Stack's attack along with the shooting this month at the Pentagon Metro station, a federal courthouse shooting in Las Vegas in January and a growing number of threats against agencies have many feds concerned about the safety of their workplaces. Labor unions and lawmakers last week called for increased security at federal facilities. But many federal employees say there's also need to combat anti-government stereotypes that can lead to violence.

"It's just crossing a line. People have complained about the federal government and federal employees forever, and we've come to accept that, but it's crossing a line when it turns to violence," Ressler told Federal Times.

An angry climate

There's no single source for data on threats against federal facilities, but recent statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest they're on the rise. The Federal Protective Service says weapons violations on federal property jumped 10 percent in 2009, compared with 2008; the IRS says threats against its facilities increased by 11 percent during the same period.

Experts link at least some of that increase to the growth of anti-government movements. In November, the Anti-Defamation League released a report, "Rage Grows in America," which concludes "a current of anti-government hostility has swept across the United States" since President Obama's inauguration.

"Some accuse Obama of plotting to bring socialism to the United States, while others claim he will bring about Nazism or fascism," the group wrote. "All believe that Obama and his administration will trample on individual freedoms and civil liberties, due to some sinister agenda."

The Southern Poverty Law Center reached a similar conclusion in a report released earlier this month: The group described a resurgence of right-wing extremist groups, many with staunchly anti-government beliefs. SPLC's findings largely mirror those of the Homeland Security Department, which released its own report on right-wing terrorism in April 2009. DHS was pilloried for the report, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized repeatedly for it.

But federal employees and their representatives say the reports are accurate.

"It's the word ‘government.' People hear that [and think] it's socialism, big government, bureaucrats taking over," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "When people hear that government is actually Social Security or Medicare, they say, ‘Oh, that's government?' They actually like the things government does."

The economy the worst in decades clearly plays a role in fueling anti-government anger. Some people resent Washington for its efforts to bail out Wall Street; others are angry about taxes, or congressional inaction to stop illegal immigration, or health care reform. All of these grievances have fueled the rise of anti-government groups, according to SPLC.

"For a while there, after Sept. 11, I thought it was turning, I thought people appreciated government more. You didn't hear this kind of talk, you know, four or five years ago," Gage said. "Now it seems to be coming around again."

Changing perceptions

Polling generally shows that Americans have a poor impression of government in the abstract, but a much more favorable view of agencies with whom they regularly interact. A Gallup Poll released in November found that just 20 percent of Americans have a positive impression of the federal government but 60 percent said their most recent interaction with the federal government was a positive one.

"I think federal employees are aware of this issue of their negative image, but the awareness varies by agency ... and location," said Philip Hoffman, a program coordinator at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "D.C. folks practically bathe in it every morning. National Park Service or Coast Guard folks, out in smaller towns around the country, may not ever encounter this sentiment."

Federal employees say they suffer from the poor public standing of political institutions particularly Congress, whose approval rating is at an all-time low.

"The public sees ‘government' as Capitol Hill, the presidency and elected officials," said Hannah Bowers, an analyst at the Veterans Affairs Department. "[And] the only time government workers are mentioned in the media is when one of us is caught for some sort of unethical behavior."

But feds are divided on how to counteract that perception. Some suggest outreach and advertising campaigns, aimed at explaining how their work benefits the public; others say a public relations blitz would only lead to charges of wasteful government spending.

"I'm not sure it should be feds, because on the occasions when you see the federal government advertise, people criticize that as a waste," Ressler said, pointing to the Census Bureau's $2.5 million Super Bowl ad as an example. "I'm not sure whose job it is to change that perception."

Legislators are also starting to take up the issue. The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, the Postal Service and the District of Columbia held a hearing last week to discuss federal employee safety. Several lawmakers lamented the "gutting" of the Federal Protective Service over the last few years; the agency now has fewer than 1,000 full-time officers.

"There has got to be renewed appreciation of federal workers, and the hammering of civil servants has to stop," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., at the hearing. "It is very disturbing to see the uptick on federal employees once again."

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., introduced a resolution last week urging better attention to federal employee safety. The legislation doesn't contain any specific policy changes, but Moran's office said he plans to work with agencies and labor unions to discuss any ideas they might have.

"These acts were more than sensational attempts at mass murder," Moran said. "They were acts of domestic terrorism targeting the government and our federal employees."

In the short term, federal employees say they would appreciate stronger condemnations of anti-government actions and rhetoric and a stronger defense of their value to the country.

"Officials from the White House on down need to step up and make public rebuttal statements," Hoffman said. "It does no good to have a goal of having a world-class workforce if you aren't going to defend them. And it's not hard."

See graphic:" target="_blank">Arrests, threats increase; gaps in security remain

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