Analysis: More bad news in the terror war

By Michael Kirkland
UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent
Published April 5, 2005

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 program.
    That program, Secure Flight, is behind schedule and cannot protect the privacy of the traveling public, a separate GAO report in late March said.
    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 Act.
    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 explosives.
    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 access explosives."
    The report said additional research "found several of these individuals had serious criminal records."
    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 to explosives.
    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 so. "

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