The New York Times The New York Times National May 12, 2002  

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U.S. Agencies Seen as Slow to Move on Terrorism Risk


WASHINGTON, May 11 — Independent auditors at several federal agencies have issued new reports in recent weeks criticizing the agencies for moving too slowly to confront the risks of terrorist attacks.

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

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The reports were issued across the spectrum of federal agencies, and more are being published each week as the auditors continue to increase their scrutiny of measures against terrorism.

Their conclusions demonstrate the magnitude of the government's task in preventing new terrorist attacks, even as Congress approves billions of dollars to be spent on protecting so many federal facilities 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 that are listed in their stockpiles, including three billion doses of a dangerous virus.

On Sept. 24, in a sign of the problem's urgency, the inspector general, whose auditors had inspected only a few laboratories so far, issued a "management alert" recommending that the agency strengthen controls over its inventories. The next month, the department reported to the White House Office of Homeland Security that the laboratories and their contents had been secured.

But the auditors, after visiting an additional 114 laboratories at 87 sites, questioned that claim, saying that the department still did not have an accurate picture of its stockpiles. In January they issued another alert, saying that the situation had "not significantly changed."

In their final report, they said that despite recent progress, the department must still do more to control inventories of dangerous substances.

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

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

Some at the Energy Department quarreled with the new report. While the department's Office of Security agreed to try to locate the materials, the department's National Nuclear Security Administration disagreed, saying international agreements governing the materials contained no requirement for the United States to track them.

Shortly after the suicide hijackings on Sept. 11, auditors looking into aviation security discovered that dozens of Forest Service tanker planes used to drop flame-retardant chemicals on forest fires were open to theft because they were often left unattended at remote airfields "and could be attractive to terrorists wishing to disperse biological or chemical weapons."

Even though law enforcement agencies were grounding crop-dusting planes at the time, the auditors said, the Forest Service decided that the risk of its tanker plane being stolen by terrorists or other criminals was not even worth examining closely. After the audit sharply criticized the agency, it agreed to correct the problems, saying it might take a year to do so.

A report issued on Friday by the Transportation Department's inspector general found that neither federal nor state precautions were adequate "to defend against the alarming threat posed by individuals who seek to fraudulently obtain commercial driver's licenses."

Since Sept. 11, the authorities have been cracking down on this kind of fraud in an attempt to prevent truck bombings. The auditors found one state that had failed to enter into national databases 20,000 new licenses over 20 months, although federal standards require them to be reported within 10 days. The report said the federal agency was increasing its supervision over the states, but that more needed to be done.

Auditors at the department also started two reviews of airport security in April. One review will determine if the additional screeners put to work since September had received adequate training and were properly inspecting passengers and baggage, and the other will assess recent progress in installing advanced technology for detecting explosives in checked baggage. Under a new law, the department faces a year-end deadline to improve passenger screening and baggage inspection.

Kenneth M. Mead, the inspector general, warned Congress on April 17 that the department's security agency was running out of money, that its costs were increasing rapidly and that its spending plans were in flux, making it unlikely that it can meet those deadlines.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mead said, the agency appeared to be wasting money, for example by spending $2,500 for the security check on each of its tens of thousands of newly hired screeners, and even paying bills without knowing whether they were submitted by bona fide security contractors.

The agency estimated that its contracts with screening companies may cost $1.6 billion by the end of the year, but "controls over these contracts appear to be woefully lacking," Mr. Mead said. The number of contractors has ballooned to 71 from 50 in recent months and is still growing, he said.

"According to the contracting office, they receive bills from many companies that have no contracts, and we were told that no one knows the exact number of companies actually providing services," Mr. Mead said. "We were also told bills are being paid as they come in and that no one verifies that the amounts being charged are actual costs."

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Harvey Spector for The New York Times
A recent Forest Service audit report warned of possible thefts of tanker planes. It said the planes, used to drop chemicals on forest fires, "could be attractive to terrorists wishing to disperse biological or chemical weapons."


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