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FBI Discovers Computers, Guns Missing

July 18, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The FBI, which has been plagued by a series of blunders and embarrassments, admitted Tuesday that it cannot find 449 of the agency's weapons and 184 laptop computers--at least one of which contains classified information.

Some of the guns and computers were lost, some were stolen and still others were believed to be misplaced somewhere in the bureau's field offices, officials said. The weapons included submachine guns, rifles, shotguns and handguns, and at least some of the weapons were used to commit crimes.

Of the missing weapons, 184 were stolen and 265, including 91 training weapons, were reported lost or missing, officials said. In addition, 66 of the lost weapons involved agents who are retired, and four were connected to agents who died or were fired.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said the discovery came "as part of an ongoing internal review and in response to questions from Congress" and from the committee headed by William H. Webster, the former head of the FBI and CIA, that is reviewing gaps in the FBI's internal security procedures.

Officials disclosed the missing items on the eve of a scheduled hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee on reforming the management of the FBI, the nation's premier investigative force. The bureau has faced months of turmoil, including investigations into the case of convicted FBI spy Robert Philip Hanssen and the FBI's failure to turn over material to lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh. The missing-documents revelation forced Ashcroft to postpone McVeigh's execution for a month.

Those problems came in the wake of harsh criticism directed at the FBI for its handling of the investigation into whether Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee had given secrets to China.

The missing computers have no connection to the Lee case or to the still unsolved case of a missing laptop at the State Department that contains classified data on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, officials said. The FBI participated in the investigation of the State Department case.

After Tuesday's revelation about the missing weapons, Ashcroft announced a department-wide review to account for all the equipment issued to its employees.

"The department must ensure the highest standards for the inventory and accounting of law enforcement equipment issued to [its] employees and agents," Ashcroft said.

"In order for law enforcement organizations to be effective, they must have the public's confidence in their ability to perform not only the most complex duties but also the most basic responsibilities."

The FBI has ordered all field offices to do a comprehensive inventory of all equipment worth more than $500 by Sept. 30 or risk having their funding withheld. Officials also said they would pursue possible criminal investigations in the cases involving retired or fired agents who failed to turn in their weapons.

The attorney general had already taken steps earlier this month to rein in the FBI, giving Justice Department watchdogs greater power to investigate allegations of misconduct at the beleaguered agency.

And the bureau will come under new leadership with the expected confirmation of Robert Mueller, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, as director.

Officials who briefed reporters Tuesday on the FBI's missing equipment described the results as preliminary. A "small number" of the stolen weapons were later used to commit crimes, one official said.

He said one of the missing laptop computers contained classified information from a closed investigation and three others may also contain classified data.

In a statement Tuesday, Ashcroft noted that auditors had found similar problems with missing weapons in March at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, another agency within the Justice Department. A total of 539 weapons were missing and unaccounted for.

Justice Department officials said 44 of the INS guns were found, 130 are considered lost or stolen and 119 were incorrectly reported as missing. The INS is looking into what happened to the other 246 weapons.

The FBI's missteps have been more than public relations setbacks; they have ended the bureau's status as "untouchable" within the Justice Department.

Under the reign of Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI developed an aura that allowed it to stand apart, or even above, the executive branch, even though it was an agency within a larger department. For decades, the FBI's allies in Congress also shielded it from scrutiny.

But all that has changed recently. Ashcroft has made clear that he intends to bring the bureau under the Justice Department's control, and he is being encouraged to do so by Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.

David Carle, a spokesman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said committee Democrats are supportive of the attorney general's moves.

"Leahy and Ashcroft are in agreement on this. Ashcroft has undertaken a top-to-bottom review of the FBI and moved to strengthen the Department of Justice's oversight role," Carle said.

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Times wire services contributed to this story.

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