Feel safer now?
How could the world’s largest private-security firm employ a man who, for almost a decade, angrily and openly threatened to commit mass murder?
Omar Mateen, the killer responsible for the carnage at the Pulse night club in Orlando, two weeks ago, began training to become a corrections officer during the fall of 2006. He worked at a prison in Indiantown, Florida, while attending a correctional academy at a community college. His training didn’t last long. In April, 2007, the Florida Department of Corrections “administratively dismissed” Mateen, and he was kicked out of the academy. Mateen had felt slighted for being a Muslim, warned that a massacre like the one at Virginia Tech could occur at the academy, and talked about shooting his classmates at a school cookout. Administrators worried that he might show up on campus with a gun. , he was hired by G4S Secure Solutions USA, Inc., to work as an armed security guard. He obtained a license to carry a concealed weapon and, over the years, fulfilled various assignments for the company. At the St. Lucie County Courthouse, where G4S had a contract, one of Mateen’s tasks was screening visitors for guns.
In the aftermath of the Orlando killings, many questions remain unanswered—about the role that religious extremism played in the crime, the mix of personal despair and political ideology that motivated the killer, the efficacy of gun-control laws to prevent such violence, the competence of the F.B.I. in recent anti-terrorism investigations. And there is also the question of how G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, could have employed an armed guard who, for almost a decade, angrily and openly threatened to commit mass murder.
In 2013, other G4S guards at the St. Lucie courthouse warned their supervisor that Mateen had made sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic remarks; that he’d praised Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army major and self-proclaimed “Soldier of Allah” who shot forty-five people at Fort Hood; that Mateen had claimed connections to members of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings; and that he’d expressed the wish to die as a martyr. Mateen had also threatened a deputy sheriff. “Omar became very agitated and made a comment that he could have Al Qaeda kill my employee and his family,” Sheriff Ken Mascara later explained. The sheriff’s office notified the F.B.I., and the courthouse supervisor asked G4S to remove Mateen from his post at the courthouse immediately. Instead of firing him, G4S merely transferred him. For the next year, while on a terrorist watch list and under investigation by the F.B.I., Mateen retained his Florida license to carry a gun and worked as a security guard at P.G.A. Village, a golf resort. Daniel Gilroy, a former police officer who worked with him at the resort, told Florida Today that G4S had been warned that Mateen was homophobic and potentially dangerous. His unsettling behavior prompted Gilroy to leave G4S. “I quit because everything he said was toxic,” Gilroy said. “And the company wouldn’t do anything. This guy was unhinged and unstable. He talked about killing people.” And then he did.
G4S says it was unaware that the F.B.I. had placed Mateen on a terrorist watch list, and claims to have no record of complaints about him by fellow-employees. Its assertions in this case have not always been reliable. According to documents that the company submitted to the state of Florida in September, 2007, so that Mateen could obtain a license to be an armed security guard, a psychological evaluation conducted by Dr. Carol Nudelman had found him to be mentally sound. But after the shootings, Nudelman issued a statement that said, “In September 2007, I was not living or working in Florida . . . and I did not administer any type of examination to Omar Mateen.” G4S responded that there must have been a “clerical error” and that Mateen had been examined by another psychologist. But the company could not say whether that psychologist had ever met with Mateen or administered the test personally.
G4S contends that, because Omar Mateen did not commit mass murder while on the job, the company bears no responsibility for his crime. Nigel Fairbrass, the director of media relations at G4S, explained, “While we continue to review the evidence, we know this much to be true: nothing about Omar Mateen’s employment with G4S contributed to, or could have prevented, this terrible event.”
For the past few decades, the private security industry has flourished worldwide, promising lower costs and greater efficiency as part of a movement for smaller government. During that time, a Danish security company, Group 4 Falck, rose, through mergers and acquisitions, to become G4S, the third-largest private employer in the world, after Walmart and Foxconn, with offices in more than a hundred countries and headquarters outside London. Among its many activities, G4S has guarded oil fields in Kazakhstan, provided security at European rock concerts and shopping malls and banks, operated a prison in South Africa, established centers where rape victims can get medical and counselling services in Great Britain, guarded embassies in Afghanistan, and run its own private-investigation service.
Some of the “upscale security officers” that G4S employs in the United States earn lower wages than fast-food workers. The company has long been accused of cutting corners, reducing pay, and caring more about profit margins than public safety. In 2012, G4S gained publicity by failing to hire enough security guards for the London Olympics, forcing the British military to supply more than four and a half thousand troops at the last minute. In 2014, G4S lost the contract to manage a migrant-detention center for the Australian government, amid allegations of violent, abusive, and poorly trained staff. On a more trivial note, in May of this year, G4S employees operating the 999 emergency telephone service in Lincolnshire, England, were caught dialling 999 hundreds of times. By calling themselves and quickly answering the phone, the workers improved the company’s apparent performance in responding to emergency calls.
The state of Florida has been a pioneer in the transfer of public services to private companies. In 1954, George Wackenhut, a former F.B.I. agent, started a small detective agency in Miami. It grew to become the Wackenhut Corporation, an international conglomerate that worked closely with the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., specializing in corporate security, airport security, strike-breaking, anti-terrorism, the defense of critical infrastructure, and private prisons. George Wackenhut was politically conservative and kept files on two and a half million Americans deemed to be “subversives.” His company was bought, in 2002, by the Danish firm that later became G4S. Although Wackenhut’s private-prison division was sold off the following year, G4S has benefitted from the privatizing, small-government philosophy of Rick Scott, Florida’s current governor. In 2013, the state completed the privatization of its fifty-six juvenile-detention centers. Twenty-eight are now operated by G4S Youth Services.
The G4S juvenile facilities in Florida have been notable for disturbances, escapes, high levels of violence among the detainees, and sexual assaults by staff members. During an August, 2013, riot at the Highlands Youth Academy, in Avon Park, G4S employees lost control of the detention center and fled the premises. More than a hundred and fifty security officers from local sheriffs’ departments, the Highway Patrol, the Department of Corrections, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission entered the facility and ended the riot, with the aid of K-9 units and air support. A grand-jury report on the causes of the disturbance was released in 2015. It said, “The buildings are in disrepair and not secured, the juvenile delinquents are improperly supervised and receive no meaningful tools to not re-offend, the staff is woefully undertrained and ill equipped to handle the juveniles in their charge, and the safety of the public is at risk. . . . Yet G4S has a 9% profit margin and expects to make $800,000.00 in profit this year from the operation of the Highlands Youth Academy.” The G4S juvenile facility was “a disgrace to the state of Florida,” the grand jury concluded, and should “cease to exist.”
The ability of Omar Mateen to keep his job as an armed security officer at G4S for almost nine years—despite clear signs of his instability, anger issues, prejudice, and professed sympathy for Islamic terrorists—has national-security implications. Private contractors are now guarding facilities that could produce catastrophic effects if attacked with help from an insider. “G4S has partnered with more than 90 percent of U.S. nuclear facilities,” the company’s Web site notes. That statistic, if accurate, is not reassuring. At one point, the firm supplied security officers to about half of the commercial nuclear power stations in the United States. And those guards were repeatedly caught sleeping on the job.
A 2006 federal investigation found that at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, in Florida, guards employed by Wackenhut Nuclear Services, a division of G4S, were “willfully inattentive to duty or served as lookouts such that other security officers could be inattentive while on duty.” They were sleeping in break rooms and guard towers. Some Wackenhut guards were tired, among other reasons, because they were being required to work for twelve hours a day, five or six days a week. Paying a guard to work overtime is less expensive than hiring another full-time guard. In 2007, at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, in Pennsylvania, a Wackenhut security officer complained to his supervisor that his fellow-officers were exhausted, sleeping on the job, and jeopardizing the security of the plant. When the supervisor dismissed his concerns, the officer wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Wackenhut denied that there was a problem; the N.R.C. failed to take action; and so the officer videotaped a dozen guards sleeping at the plant and gave the tape to a New York television station. Exelon, the owner of the Peach Bottom facility and the nation’s largest operator of nuclear plants, quickly terminated its contract with Wackenhut, which had provided security at all of its reactors. Wackenhut Nuclear Services responded to the dismissal by hiring new managers and adopting a new name. It is now called G4S Regulated Security Solutions.
Until a few years ago, G4S was responsible for security not only at nuclear power plants but also at critical nuclear-weapons sites. Guards employed by Wackenhut Services, Inc. (also known as G4S Government Solutions), defended both the Y-12 National Security Complex, in Tennessee, the nation’s largest storage facility for weapons-grade uranium, and the Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, the largest storage facility for weapons-grade plutonium. As I noted in an articlefor this magazine last year, on July, 28, 2012, three peace activists, including an eighty-two-year-old nun, broke into Y-12, cut through three perimeter fences, made their way undetected to the uranium-storage building, and spray-painted anti-nuclear slogans on its walls—a security breach of unprecedented severity. The three could have been terrorists instead of pacifists. Subsequent investigations found that video cameras at the complex had remained broken for weeks, alarms were routinely ignored, and G4S guards had been cheating on proficiency exams for years.
In November, 2014, after losing the contract to provide security at Y-12, G4S Government Solutions was split off, sold to a private-equity firm, and renamed the Centerra Group. It is still responsible for guarding the plutonium at the Savannah River Site—and just won the contract to guard the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When I spoke to Paul Donahue, the C.E.O. of the Centerra Group, the other day, he assured me that his company’s security guards undergo a screening process far more thorough than the one that Omar Mateen received. Donahue offered a well-reasoned defense of his industry. He was eager to convince me that important lessons had been learned from the break-in at Y-12, that private security firms could still be more effective than the government at keeping us safe. As Donahue described one of the greatest challenges that the Centerra Group now faces, it occurred to me that the same mentality poses a much wider threat. “Low price rules the day,” he said.