TAMPA - Days after asking Air Force officials how a homeless woman could sneak onto the home of U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command four times in three months, Sen. Bill Nelson says he is satisfied MacDill Air Force Base is safe.
"My reason for being here, as senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to make sure that there is nothing falling through the cracks and I am satisfied that their security, given the nature of the base, is at the level it needs to be," said Nelson after a Friday morning security briefing with base officials.
Suzanne Jensen, who told base security that she twice scaled fences, one time using an overturned garbage can as a ladder, "was deemed not to be a threat" each time she wandered onto MacDill, Nelson said. Still, he said the base has tightened up its security.
"Naturally, we have to be concerned that there was such a breach of the fence line," said Nelson, appearing at a news conference after his briefing with Air Force Col. Scott DeThomas, the base commander.
Base officials have instituted a "tightening and awareness of all the levels of security they employ," said Nelson. "They are enhancing the fence line and maritime surveillance." Base leaders are also "talking to everyone just to be aware and as a result, I don't think you'll see any kind of penetration," said Nelson.
DeThomas said that it is "never acceptable to have four incursions of any kind," but commended base security for "finding the individual in question all four times."
And things would have been different, said DeThomas, had Jensen been considered a threat.
"We have to remember that this whole thing would have transpired very differently from day one, when the defenses apprehended her, if she was found to be someone more than someone with an issue that was getting access to the base," said DeThomas.
MacDill wasn't Jensen's first illegal foray onto a military installation. Twice in February 2003, she illegally entered Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base, according to federal records, but trespassing charges were dropped in 2007 due to prosecution discretion and "the staleness" of the case. On Dec. 6, 2011, she trespassed at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Fort Myer, Va., according to court records and later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.
Last month, federal prosecutors filed four charges of entering MacDill without permission and one count of using a military identification without permission against Jensen.
However, both Nelson and DeThomas raised questions about Jensen's contention, made in statements to base security found in federal documents, that she at one point stayed on base for eight days by sleeping in a trailered boat.
"The time period she claims was never validated," said DeThomas.
Though Jensen was able to get on base, Nelson lauded efforts by base security that he said "thwarted" five "threats" in the past 18 months, including three in the past six weeks.
Nelson declined to elaborate, because the "threats are classified."
DeThomas said that the threats were not linked to Jensen or each other and none presented a national security risk. The threats were stopped by what DeThomas called a "defense in layers" that includes civilians and law enforcement in addition to the military.
DeThomas also declined to give details, saying only that one incident came from Sarasota, one from Clearwater and another on Dale Mabry Highway.
Though neither Nelson nor DeThomas would elaborate at the press conference, base officials say in the Dale Mabry incident, a Hillsborough County cab driver named Peter G. Himes alerted police about a passenger who displayed "unstable behavior and made comments such as 'on a mission' and 'take care of a few people,'" according to the MacDill website.
Himes tripped a silent alarm in the cab, alerting Tampa police, who apprehended the passenger, according to the website. Himes was commended for his actions, receiving the Citizen's Award at the Tampa Police Department on July 9 as well as a certificate and commemorative coin from the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the website said.
A "network with local law enforcement came together to ensure those three things never reached the gates," DeThomas said, speaking of the three threats to the base that took place in the past six weeks.
Defending MacDill, which sits on 5,700 acres with seven miles of shoreline and seven miles of fencing, is a challenge, said Nelson.
"Remember, this is an Air Force Base that doesn't have a big fence around it," he said. "This is an Air Force Base that sits on a peninsula."
Moving forward, Nelson said base security faces another challenge - the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
On Monday, about 3,500 civilians working on base began taking time off without pay. They will be forced to take one day off without pay for the next 11 weeks. That, said Nelson, will make it more difficult for base security.
"If you have part of your civilian component that one out of seven days is not there because of the furlough, then in fact, you don't have all the personnel you are accustomed to and you have to ramp up efficiency in a military organization to make sure you have what you need."
Nelson said he is confident MacDill will remain secure despite the furloughs, which don't affect military personnel.
"With regard to base security, Col. DeThomas is going to make sure they are at max efficiency," but the furloughs present "a handicap they are dealing with. It's like going into a fight with at least part of your arm tied behind your back and yet you are still going to perform at max efficiency."