Though available details of its design are sparse — several elected officials said they had not yet been briefed on the plans — an agency spokesman acknowledged that millions of dollars have been budgeted for security upgrades at the agency's headquarters, including some form of barrier.
"These upgrades, including a security barrier, are necessary for the safety of our employees, visitors to our buildings, and the security of our campus," spokesman Mark Hinkle said in an email.
Asked to clarify how much had been budgeted, when construction might begin and how much of the agency's sprawling campus would be cordoned off, Hinkle responded that "it's too early to get into specifics."
Federal agencies have been beefing up security for years, largely in response to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Security at the Social Security Administration's headquarters already is tight — visitors check in at multiple desks just to park a vehicle near the main building — but there is little to prevent outsiders from walking around on its campus.
Several security consultants said fences are not usually effective at keeping determined intruders out, but they do create a physical and psychological barrier for casual pedestrians. They also give security officials more time to identify and intercept would-be trespassers.
"It will keep out the honest people and stop people from straying," said Dave Aggleton, who runs a New York-based security consulting firm.
Depending on what type of threat agency officials are trying to prevent, Aggleton said, they will likely "need to design a system that will provide not necessarily the means to stop somebody from coming in but the means to detect them early enough that they can figure out what's happening and interpose their guard force to prevent it."
Ron Heil, who runs a Pittsburgh-based security consultant firm, agreed. Heil spoke generally about barriers and declined to discuss security measures at Social Security directly because he counts the agency among his clients.
"If you're supposed to be there, it gives you a feeling of safety," he said. "If you're not supposed to be there, it's supposed to make you feel uncomfortable."
Baltimore County officials said they have been aware of the potential for the a project for several years. Because Social Security is a federal agency, it will likely avoid the local government design reviews that would be required of a similarly large private company.
"County officials are aware that federal facilities need to be secure, especially in these modern times," said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "If it moves forward, it would be another significant investment by the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn."
But the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many of the agency's workers, questioned the need for the measure.
"We have heard recently that SSA plans to spend $55 million to build a fence around the headquarters building," AFGE said in a recent press release. "Apparently even when the nation is overwhelmed with debt, SSA can find money when it wants to."
Hinkle said the $55 million figure is inaccurate. He said the agency expects security upgrades at the campus to cost "much less than half of that figure."
Baltimore County Councilman Kenneth Oliver, whose district includes the campus, said he was not aware of the plans.