The department's inspector general found substantial losses of weapons and laptops — mainly at the FBI, the top U.S. law enforcement agency, and at the immigration agency, which also has been criticized for a series of management problems.
"Our audits found significant deficiencies in the accountability for sensitive department property," Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement.
He said the agencies must improve their own management controls over property like weapons and laptops computer, and urged the Justice Department to take a more active oversight role to tighten controls that are weak, inadequate or not fully implemented.
The FBI's problems with stolen, missing or lost laptop computers and weapons first surfaced in July 2001, adding to a string a blunders that included misplaced files in the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the discovery of a longtime Russian spy within the FBI's own ranks.
The report said the INS had 539 missing weapons while the FBI had 212 missing weapons in the two-year audit period. The FBI had an additional 211 weapons reported missing during a time period not covered by the audit.
In contrast, the Drug Enforcement Administration had just 16 stolen, lost or missing weapons, the U.S. Marshals Service had six and the Bureau of Prisons had two.
Local police recovered at least 18 of the missing weapons in connection with investigations into such crimes as robberies and drug dealing, according to the report.
For example, local police recovered a handgun stolen from an FBI agent's residence in New Orleans from the pocket of a murder victim.
Police in Atlanta recovered a stolen DEA weapon during a narcotics search at a suspect's residence while police in Philadelphia and in Tampa, Florida, recovered INS weapons used to commit armed robberies.
The FBI and the INS have a total of about 100,000 weapons, the report found. The FBI has more than 15,000 computers, of which 317 were lost, stolen or missing.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is a Judiciary Committee member, blamed the missing FBI guns on "weak discipline, lax standards, tardy reporting and few, if any, consequences."
Grassley, a longtime critic of the FBI, said in a statement that the missing deadly weapons and lost computers with sensitive information have "real consequences in criminal acts and danger to national security."
Investigators were unable to determine the type of information stored on the 400 missing computers, but they said some of the computers could have been used to store sensitive law enforcement information that could have jeopardized investigations if divulged.
The audit for three agencies lasted from October 1999 to August 2001 while the FBI audit covered from October 1999 through January 2002. The INS audit covered a different time period and was completed in March 2001.
By James Vicini