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Feds balk when laptops walk

The Justice Department chastises the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration for "a lack of accountability" in keeping track of laptops. At least 400 are missing, lost or stolen.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
Federal police appear to have a bad habit of losing their laptops.

The Justice Department's inspector general said Monday that law enforcement groups including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service suffer from "a lack of accountability," with at least 400 laptop computers missing, lost or stolen.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has such poor accounting practices, Inspector General Glenn Fine concluded in a 43-page report, that it could not provide a total count of missing laptops.

Because the agencies kept shoddy records, the report says, it's difficult to know what information was compromised, but it speculates that "national security or sensitive law enforcement information" is at risk. Approximately 8,000 FBI laptops, or more than half of the 15,077 total, are authorized to store material classified as secret or top secret.

"This raises significant concerns over laptop computer losses and the possible loss of sensitive data," the report concluded. "The (Justice Department) must improve the control of laptop computers and the safeguarding of information stored on these machines."

The inspector general's investigation began in March 2001 with a look at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's property management abilities. The results were so dismaying that Attorney General John Ashcroft requested that Fine investigate the practices of the entire department, reviewing laptops and firearms missing from October 1999 through January 2002.

"I thank the inspector general for his hard work and diligence in producing this report," Ashcroft said in a statement on Monday afternoon. "The Department of Justice is committed to implementing necessary reforms and policies, and these recommendations will be integral to this effort."

A similar November 2001 report by Treasury Department auditors concluded that the Internal Revenue Service also had persistent problems. The IRS has lost or misplaced 2,332 laptop computers, desktop computers and servers over three years, the auditors concluded.

The Justice Department's auditors also reported the following:

• Even though the FBI's own procedures require an inventory of physical property every two years, the last inventory was conducted before 1993.

• The police agencies organized under the Justice Department have lost 775 weapons, including losses caused by a departing employee never returning his or her firearm. The FBI has an average of 4.4 firearms per employee.

• Guards at the Bureau of Prisons can buy guns using credit cards, a practice the inspector general suggested prohibiting.

• FBI guidelines require that employees report lost property, but they don't say when the report must be filed. Some loss reports took 23 years to be filed, and the average time for a loss to be reported to the FBI was over four years.

• Only 4 percent of the lost laptops "have so far resulted in recommendations for disciplinary action."

• The total count of missing laptops and handguns could be far higher because of a "failure to record property purchases in the official property records." Also, the Immigration and Naturalization Service regularly failed to count laptops that cost less than $1,000.