FBI Missing Firearms, Computers

W A S H I N G T O N, July 17, 2001 -- Justice Department officials are investigating the disappearance of 449 firearms and 184 laptop computers — at least one containing classified information — from the FBI.

One weapon was stolen from an FBI agent's car in Alabama and later used in a shooting in Detroit, an FBI official said.

The problem of missing weapons extends beyond the FBI. In March, an audit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service found that 539 weapons were unaccounted for.

Attorney General John Ashcroft today ordered Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to conduct a sweeping review that will include all Justice Department law enforcement agencies.

"Your review should focus on those items which if not properly controlled, might result in danger to the public or might compromise national security or investigations," Ashcroft wrote in a memo to the inspector general.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing on the FBI on Wednesday, and questions about the missing equipment are expected to be raised.

Back to Basics

The disclosure was the latest piece of bad news for the FBI. Already this year, the nation's top law enforcement agency has dealt with a spy in its ranks and problems with its Oklahoma City bombing investigation.

The FBI made the discovery during a top-to-bottom inventory as part of its "Back to Basics" review.

Officials started with an inventory of guns and laptops. The FBI does periodic reviews, but this was the first ever comprehensive review of every single weapon in its inventory. The review, conducted over the past four weeks, counted weapons and laptops missing over the past 11 to 12 years.

FBI Acting Director Tom Ickard submitted the preliminary conclusions of the review to Ashcroft today.

As part of the review, all supervisors must conduct a full-field search for the missing firearms by Sept. 30 and must open criminal investigations where the weapons missing belonged to fired or retired agents.

"The Department must ensure the highest standards for the inventory and the accounting of law enforcement equipment issued to Department employees and agents," Ashcroft said in a statement. "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."

Computer Had Classified Information

At least one of the laptops contained classified information on two closed investigations, FBI officials said. Three others may contain other classified information, the officials said.

The FBI has approximately 50,000 weapons and 13,000 laptops total. With the missing guns, 184 were stolen and 265 were reported lost or missing, according to FBI officials. Of the lost or missing weapons, 91 involved training weapons, 61 involved agents who retired, and four involved agents who died or were fired.

Now, agents will search for the weapons. "If we have it in our possession, we're gonna count it. If we don't, we're gonna find out why," one FBI official said.

Assessing the Blunder

The announcement of the missing firearms and computers comes as the FBI is under increased scrutiny for a series of recent blunders. But one expert said it is too early to judge the gravity of the situation.

"It's hard to evaluate. … the FBI has always had some poor record-keeping practices," said author and FBI expert Ron Kessler. "When you think of the number of firearms and the number of laptops the FBI has, it seems like a pretty small number. I wouldn't lump it in the same category as some of the other scandals."

In recent months, the agency has been criticized for failing to provide documents to Timothy McVeigh's defense attorneys, a move that postponed the Oklahoma City bomber's execution by nearly a month. Longtime FBI agent Robert Hanssen also pleaded guilty recently to charges he spied on the United States for the former Soviet Union.

Fine, the inspector general, has open investigations into both the McVeigh and Hanssen cases. Now, his office will probe the missing firearms and computers.

Also, William Webster, a former director of both the FBI and CIA, is heading a commission to investigate ways to improve security at the FBI. Reported by ABCNEWS' Beverley Lumpkin, Pierre Thomas and Bryan Robinson.