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Fed Agencies' Post-911 Moves Panned

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 New York Times reports on its Web site.

The security audits, prepared by inspectors general, say that even after 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 communications links from attack or take other high-priority measures, the Times says.

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

Their conclusions demonstrate the magnitude of the government's task in preventing attacks, even as Congress approves billions of dollars to be spent on protecting so many places against an array of possible acts of terrorism, the Times points out.

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, the Times says.

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 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, the Times reports.

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 they could be used to make the crude nuclear-laced explosives known as dirty bombs.

Some at the department quarreled with the new report, the Times adds. 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 Sept. 11, auditors looking into aviation security discovered that dozens of Forest Service tanker planes used to drop tons of flame-retardant chemicals on forest fires were open to theft because they are 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 these planes being stolen 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, according to the Times.

A report issued 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, the Times reports. One review will see if the additional screeners put to work since September received adequate training and are properly screening passengers and baggage, and the other will assess recent progress in installing advanced technologies 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 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, Mead said, the agency appears 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 contractors.

Even when money is made available to fight terrorism, it's not always spent. In a report last month, the inspector general's office found that Justice Department grants to state and local law enforcement agencies intended to improve their ability to respond to terrorism were being distributed too slowly. As of January, the report found, more than half of the $243 million appropriated for the program over the last three years had not been disbursed, according to the Times.

Audit reports released this year by the inspector general at the Justice Department criticized many of the department's programs involving terrorism, the Times reports.

The Justice Department reports, which refer repeatedly to the Sept. 11 attacks, 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, as well as failures in the Immigration and Naturalization Service in monitoring immigrants.

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 on Capitol Hill.
But in interviews with the Times this week, members of Congress vowed to use the inspector general reports released since Sept. 11 as a map in demanding a stepped-up governmentwide counterterrorism program.

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

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