FBI says had no system to prevent loss of guns, computers at bureau

Wednesday, July 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ No single FBI official was responsible for keeping track of agents' weapons or computers that held classified information, a situation that contributed to the loss of almost 450 guns and more than 180 computers, a bureau administrator said Wednesday.

The FBI has since tightened security and Attorney General John Aschroft has confidence in the agency. Senators critical of FBI lapses were unbowed and pledged to press for major reforms.

``This Congress wants some changes and so does the American people,'' Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said at an FBI oversight hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department revealed Tuesday that 449 side arms and submachine guns are missing. One of the missing guns was used in a homicide, officials said. Also, there are more than 180 computers _ at least one containing classified data _ missing.

Each FBI employee has been accountable for the whereabouts of laptop computers assigned to them. Kenneth Senser, the FBI's deputy assistant director in charge of internal security, said the FBI established a security council that began in May 2000 to put in place a system to make sure the bureau was keeping track of the computers.

``Who is held accountable?'' demanded Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to Senser.

``At the time, actually, there was no one held accountable, in the sense that the FBI policy was very clear on the control of laptop computers,'' Senser said.

``You're saying nobody's held accountable? So you can have laptops with classified information, so you sort of leave it up to the person with it to make sure it's turned in when they're supposed to be?'' Leahy said. ``We have a better system here in the Senate.''

Senser added that the FBI has improved its security systems and protocols in the last two years.

``Is there a system in place today so if you have a computer with classified information that somebody in the FBI can say at 2 o'clock this afternoon 'I know where every one of the computers is with classified information and who has them?''' Leahy asked.

``Today, yes, that is true,'' Senser said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he continues to believe in the FBI despite its recent controversies. ``Every organization has problems,'' he said. ``But how do you respond to the problems? I have to say the FBI has been responding constructively.''

Senators have complained for weeks that the FBI has a culture of covering up its mistakes and have offered several bills to reform the agency, including provisions for outside reviews and more power for agency watchdogs such as the inspector general's office.

But Ashcroft, before the Senate's first FBI oversight hearing last month, announced he already removed some of the roadblocks stopping the Justice Department's inspector general from investigating the agency.

President Bush also has nominated Robert Mueller, a former U.S. Attorney known for cleaning up and reforming law enforcement offices, to be the new FBI director.

``Getting whatever problems there are out on the table, making it clear to the ... the new nominee who will be a director when confirmed by the Senate, is the way to deal with this situation,'' Ashcroft said.

The FBI has been under fire for missteps going back years, including the failure to provide thousands of documents to Timothy McVeigh's lawyers, the Robert Hanssen spy case, the bloody Branch Davidian and Ruby Ridge standoffs and the botched investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

``Large FBI foul-ups used to be extraordinary events, yet now they appear to be deteriorating into regular occurrences,'' said the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

The missing computers and weapons revealed Tuesday were discovered during a comprehensive inventory of equipment undertaken at the behest of the Justice Department. FBI officials said Tuesday the bureau tracks lost weapons, but this was the first time a serious effort was mounted to try to get an accounting of missing equipment from all FBI field offices.

Besides the theft of 184 FBI weapons, 265 were lost, said FBI and Justice officials, discussing the problem on condition of anonymity. Most of the missing weapons are handguns, officials said, but submachine guns are included.

Ninety-one of the missing guns were training weapons with firing pins removed, but one of the missing weapons had been used in a homicide, officials said. They gave no additional details.

In all, 184 laptops are missing, including 13 believed to have been stolen, officials said. They said that in addition to one computer known to have contained classified information, three other missing machines might also have had classified material.