Federal agencies still lag on security, auditors find

Buildings and materials found to be vulnerable


WASHINGTON - Independent auditors at several federal agencies have issued reports in recent weeks criticizing the agencies for moving too slowly to confront the risks of terrorist attacks against their facilities and the public.

The security audits, prepared by the inspectors general, say that even after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, some government departments did not act effectively to control hazardous materials, secure buildings and aircraft, clamp down on unlawful immigrants, protect vital computers and communication links, or take other high-priority measures.

The reports covered the spectrum of federal agencies, and more are being published each week as the auditors increase their scrutiny of measures taken against terrorism. Their conclusions emphasize the magnitude of the government's task in preventing attacks, even as Congress approves billions of dollars for protecting so many places against such an array of possible acts of terrorism.

One example of a slow response came at the Department of Agriculture, where the inspector general's office reported that many of the agency's 336 laboratories were unable to account for dangerous biological agents, including 3 billion doses of a dangerous virus.

On Sept. 24, in a sign of the problem's urgency, the inspector general issued a "management alert" recommending immediate steps to prevent biological agents from being stolen. The next month, the department reported to the White House Office of Homeland Security that laboratories had been secured. But the auditors disagreed and in January issued another alert. After visiting an additional 114 laboratories at 87 sites, they reported that "the situation had not significantly changed."

In another example, the Energy Department's inspector general reported that the department could not fully account for radioactive fuel rods and other nuclear material. They had been lent to several countries - including Iran and others no longer under the sway of the U.S. government - beginning in the 1960s as part of the Atoms for Peace program.

Gaps in the system of tracking the material, which includes small amounts of plutonium, have been known for years. But the auditors said there were new concerns that the material could be used to make "dirty bombs," or crude nuclear-laced explosives.

But some at the Energy Department disputed the report. Although the department's Office of Security agreed to try to find the materials, its National Nuclear Security Administration did not consent, saying international pacts that govern the materials contain no requirement that the United States track them.

Since Sept. 11, counterterrorism efforts have increased across the nation. But even when money is made available, it is not always spent.

In a report issued last month, the inspector general's office found that Justice Department grants to state and local law enforcement agencies were being distributed too slowly. As of January, the report found, more than half of the $243 million appropriated for the grant program over the past three years had not been disbursed.

Meanwhile, audit reports released this year by the inspector general at the Justice Department criticized many of the department's programs.

The Justice Department reports note the Border Patrol's continuing inability to adequately patrol the border with Canada to prevent terrorists and other criminals from entering the United States. It also points out failures in the Immigration and Naturalization Service in monitoring immigrants after they enter the United States.

The federal government's inspectors general, who operate under a system created in 1978 to place independent watchdogs in departments, have often complained that their audits are ignored by the agencies and by Capitol Hill.

But in interviews this week, members of Congress vowed to use the inspector general reports released since Sept. 11 as a map in demanding a stronger counterterrorism program throughout federal agencies.

Until now, few of these reports have received significant public attention.

"Too little has changed since 9-11," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. "Federal departments and agencies are not nearly as prepared as they need to be to prevent a second wave of terrorist attacks."

One report by the Agriculture Department's inspector general suggested how terrorists might disperse biological or chemical weapons from the fleet of firefighting tanker planes maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

In that report, which was completed late last month, the inspector general found that the planes were vulnerable to theft by terrorists or others, especially because the planes are commonly parked in sparsely populated, open areas of public airports.

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