Inquiry ordered after FBI admits losing hundreds of computers

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The Independent US

The troubled Federal Bureau of Investigation came under fresh criticism on Wednesday over the disappearance of 449 guns and more than 180 computers, at least one of which contained classified data.

The Justice Department revealed that the computers and weapons were either lost or stolen over the past decade. Most of the weapons were handguns, though sub-machine guns were also unaccounted for. At least one gun was used later to commit a murder.

John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, said he had ordered a full and urgent review of inventory controls of guns and other equipment. "I have asked the inspector general to do two things: to find out how this happened and to find a way of preventing it happening again." But Mr Ashcroft's actions may not be enough to satisfy the critics. Senators said the revelationreinforced the need for the FBI to be reformed.

The law enforcement agency has already been damaged by a series of blunders this year, including its failure to provide documents to the lawyers for the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, its handling of Robert Hanssen's emergence as a double agent and the botched inquiry into an alleged theft of secrets by the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was hearing evidence on the bureau yesterday, said: "There are some very, very serious management problems at the FBI."

Senator Charles Grassley, a longtime FBI critic, added: "To have laptops missing that could have national security information on them would be atrocious. For the FBI to have lost firearms and failed to account for them is inexcusable."

Earlier this year Louis Freeh said he was retiring as FBI director, three years before his term was due to finish – a decision that has been interpreted as an acceptance of his failure to manage the agency properly. When President Bush nominated Robert Mueller as his successorthis month, he said: "The bureau must secure its rightful place as the premier counter-espionage and counter-terrorist organisation in the United States."

Several bills to reform the agency have been put forward. They include provisions for outside reviews and more power for agency watchdogs such as the inspector general's office. A commission headed by William Webster, a former FBI and CIA chief, is investigating ways to improve security at the bureau in light of the Hanssen case. Hanssen, a former FBI agent, has admitted spying for Moscow and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The loss of the computers and weapons was discovered during an inventoryat the behest of the Justice Department. FBI officials said it this was the first time a serious effort had been mounted to try to account for equipment from all FBI field offices. In all, 184 laptops are missing, including 13 believed to have been stolen, officials said. They said that up to four of the computers might contain classified material.

Ninety-one of the missing weapons were training guns with their firing pins removed. Officials said one had been used in a murder since it went missing, but refused to give further details. The FBI declined to comment on the loss.