Analysis: More bad news in the terror warBy Michael Kirkland
Published April 5,
WASHINGTON -- The Justice
Department's inspector general issued a devastating
report Tuesday on the performance of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in keeping
explosives out of the wrong hands.
But the report was just one
more piece of bad news in the country's war on terror.
It followed hard on the
heels of a report by the congressional Government
Accountability Office that said there is no consensus
among the scientific community on how to determine
whether a site has been contaminated by a bioterrorism
threat such as anthrax.
Another report issued in
March by the Homeland Security Department's inspector
general said the Transportation Security Administration
misled the public, the media and Congress on the
effectiveness of its airline passenger screening
That program, Secure Flight,
is behind schedule and cannot protect the privacy of the
traveling public, a separate GAO report in late March
An earlier Justice
Department inspector general's report issued in February
was highly critical of the FBI's progress in the
modernization of its computer processes and data.
This means that Tuesday's
release of the critical report on the ATF could be seen
as part of a pattern of shortcomings across the
government as the nation struggles to cope with a new
type of war, the war against terror.
Tuesday's report reviewed
the ATF's implementation of the 2002 Safe Explosives
Originally part of the
Treasury Department, the ATF was moved to the Justice
Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It
retained its old acronym, ATF, despite the addition of
"Explosives" to its title to better reflect its duties.
By statute, the ATF is the
chief enforcer of the nation's explosives laws and
regulations and is responsible for licensing
manufacturers, importers, dealers and users of
The bureau is also
responsible for overseeing the storage of explosives,
which the inspector general's report said "are an
integral part of the nation's economy. More than 5
billion pounds of explosives are used each year in the
United States for mining, construction and demolition
projects," fireworks, some medical applications such as
the destruction of kidney stones and the inflation of
vehicle airbags, among other applications.
SEA expanded the ATF's
licensing authority to include the intrastate
manufacture, purchase and use of explosives, the report
said, and expanded the categories of "prohibited
persons" who should be barred from access to explosives.
The new categories include
dishonorably discharged military and those who have
renounced their U.S. citizenship. The pre-existing
categories include felons, fugitives, users and addicts
of controlled substances and people who have been
labeled mentally defective by a court or have been
committed to mental institutions.
The law also requires the
ATF to collect fingerprints and conduct background
checks on all explosives licensees and their employees
who have access to explosives.
"Our review found critical
deficiencies in the ATF's implementation of the
background check and clearance process that prevented
the agency from ensuring that prohibited persons are
denied access to explosives," the report said.
A comparison of ATF and FBI
data showed "no record that the ATF requested FBI
background checks on 59 of 683 employees of explosive
licensees (9 percent) whose ATF records we examined,"
the report said. "We also determined that the ATF had
failed to complete the background check process for over
half (655 of 1,157) of the individuals identified by the
FBI as possible prohibited persons. Consequently, these
potentially prohibited persons were still authorized to
The report said additional
research "found several of these individuals had serious
The review also determined
"that the ATF frequently failed to complete" clearance
processes for employers, meaning 31 percent of those
employers reviewed "were listed as 'pending' for an
average of 299 days."
The report said many
explosives licensees have not reported new hires -- less
than 8 percent reported any new hires to the ATF between
May 2003 and last January.
In addition, the report
cited insufficient information services to manage data
and inadequate training for ATF inspectors.
The report issued a number
of recommendations, including immediate background
checks on anyone now in the licensing system who has not
been checked by the FBI; and an immediate recheck of the
license status of all those identified by the FBI as
prohibited people to make sure they do not have access
After the inspector
general's report was issued, the bureau issued a
statement complaining that it "does not adequately
recognize ATF's many accomplishments in implementing the
Safe Explosives Act. We are very proud of those
accomplishments and want to mention just a few. ATF had
six months to implement the Safe Explosives Act and
recognized full well that to truly make America safer,
we needed a successful partnership with the legal
explosives industry. ATF developed and published the
required regulations and forms that implemented the act.
We provided specific educational material to the entire
explosives industry so that their individual efforts at
compliance could complement the efforts of ATF. We
assisted thousands of legitimate firms in the explosives
industry to continue or begin their businesses
understanding full well the requirements of the act and
their role in helping to keep America safe. ATF
conducted tens of thousands of employee background
checks on the more than 12,000 Federal Explosives
Licensees and Permittees as well as on all of their
employees involved in the handling of explosives. ATF's
implementation of the Safe Explosives Act was an
extraordinary effort and we are proud of it."
At the same time, the ATF
said it "recognizes that there are discrepancies
resulting from this review that need to be immediately
and appropriately addressed. We are committed to doing