- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

The Justice Department, hampered by budget shortfalls and high staff turnover, is not prepared to respond quickly to terrorist attacks, hostage incidents, hurricanes and other natural disasters, said a report yesterday by the department’s Office of Inspector General.

“Rapid response to critical incidents … is an essential function of the Department of Justice,” Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the 70-page report. “Critical incident response is also an integral part of the department’s strategy for combating terrorism.”

But, Mr. Fine said, the U.S. attorney’s offices in the nation’s 93 districts — all of whom are responsible for developing plans to respond to major incidents — are not adequately prepared to do so.

To improve each office’s ability to respond to critical incidents, Mr. Fine said Attorney General Janet Reno directed the department in 1996 to implement the Crisis Management Coordinator (CMC) program, directing each U.S. attorney to designate an assistant U.S. attorney to coordinate development of response plans.

“We found a significant turnover in the CMC position during the nine months from October 2005 to July 2006 — an annualized rate of 23 percent,” Mr. Fine said. “This figure is significantly greater than the 6 percent turnover rate for assistant U.S. attorneys as a whole in 2005.”

Mr. Fine said the high turnover rate directly affected the ability of the U.S. attorney offices nationwide to prepare for critical incidents.

According to the report, “factors beyond the control” of the U.S. attorneys affected their ability to respond to critical incidents, including continuing budget shortages that have limited the number of assistant U.S. attorneys on staff.

Mr. Fine said budget shortages over the past four years have come at a time that workloads have continued to increase. As a result, he said, the ability of assistant U.S. attorneys to complete nonprosecutorial functions, such as CMC duties, has been restricted.

Because assistant U.S. attorneys are evaluated on the number of prosecutions and not on CMC activities, Mr. Fine said they have had “less incentive” to focus on critical incident response plans.

He also said that while U.S. attorneys nationwide stepped up training in response to the September 11 attacks, their efforts have fallen off, noting that fewer than half complied with requirements to conduct annual training exercises in 2005 and 2006.

Mr. Fine also said the U.S. attorneys have not consistently completed after-action reports following exercises or actual events, or forwarded the reports to allow for lessons learned to be shared. He said better efforts have to be made to ensure the offices “are actually conducting the requisite activities.”

He noted that following the September 11 attacks, the need to respond quickly and effectively to critical incidents was highlighted in both the department’s anti-terrorism plan and the Department of Homeland Security’s national strategy. He said the quality of that response depends, in large part, on developing and making necessary revisions and conducting “tabletop” or field exercises.

He said that while Justice Department officials had taken “important steps to improve” their preparedness to respond to critical incidents, “several areas remain in need of improvement.”

During a major incident, U.S. attorneys nationwide are responsible for having a plan in place to respond. In the event of a critical incident, they are the on-scene legal decision makers for the department, responsible for facilitating coordination with federal, state and local officials.

As part of the review, Mr. Fine made seven recommendations to help the department improve the U.S. attorneys’ ability to respond quickly and appropriately to critical incidents, and the department concurred with all of them.

Michael Battle, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys at Justice, said in a Jan. 8 letter attached to the IG’s report that the department plans “to resolve and implement solutions” to the audit findings.

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