The Justice Department’s top watchdog says counterterrorism continues to be the department’s highest priority and top management challenge, but she’s concerned that its plans for responding to a potential incident involving a weapon of mass destruction are “uncoordinated and fragmented.”
Acting Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar told a House subcommittee Wednesday that while the FBI had taken appropriate steps to prepare for its response to a WMD attack, the Justice Department as a whole and its other law enforcement components had not implemented adequate response plans.
In particular, she said, the department had not assigned or designated an office or a person to be responsible for central oversight of WMD response activities and, other than the FBI, department components provided little to no training for responding to an incident and rarely participated in WMD exercises.
“In addition, while the department had designated the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as the lead agency to coordinate the use of federal law enforcement resources to maintain public safety and security if local and state resources are overwhelmed during a WMD incident, ATF had not adequately prepared for this role,” she said.
Ms. Schnedar, a 22-year Justice Department veteran who formerly served as deputy inspector general before assuming the top job Jan. 29, cited as “another example of insufficient counterterrorism coordination among department components” the failure of the FBI and the ATF to coordinate their response plans to explosives incidents.
“Federal law gives the FBI and ATF concurrent jurisdiction over most federal explosives incidents,” she told the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies. “In an October 2009 review, we determined that the FBI and ATF had developed separate and often conflicting approaches to explosives investigations and explosives-related activities such as training, information sharing and forensic analysis.
“These conflicts resulted in unnecessary competition and duplication of effort and also could result in problematic responses to terrorist incidents involving explosives,” she said. “Moreover, this lack of coordination is not cost-efficient, particularly with regard to training and forensic analysis.”
She said that in response to the report, Justice issued a new protocol in August designed to improve coordination between the FBI and the ATF, but she added that the department “needs to ensure that its protocols are workable and are enforced, and that the FBI and ATF consistently coordinate and cooperate in explosives investigations.”
Ms. Schnedar also outlined for the committee other areas of concern, including:
• The challenge of hiring specialized employees with foreign-language capabilities or expertise in information technology. She said a review of the FBI’s Foreign Language Translation Program found that “significant amounts of material collected for counterterrorism, counterintelligence and criminal investigations” had not been reviewed because of a lack of qualified linguists.
• Allegations regarding the enforcement of federal voting-rights law by the Civil Rights Division. She noted that her office is reviewing the enforcement matter now. She said the review will include the types of cases being brought, any changes in enforcement policies or procedures, whether the Voting Section has enforced the civil rights laws in a nondiscriminatory manner, and whether any section employees have been harassed. That investigation was sparked by the department’s handling of a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party.
• Suspected major deficiencies in Project Gunrunner, an ATF initiative targeting drug and firearms trafficking and the violence they bring on both sides of the southwestern border. She said ATF does not exchange intelligence with its Mexican and some U.S. partners, that ATF intelligence personnel do not routinely share firearms trafficking intelligence with each other and that ATF focuses largely on gun dealers and straw buyers rather than on higher-level traffickers, smugglers and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns.
“The department has made progress in addressing many of its top management challenges, but improvements are needed in important areas,” she said. “These challenges are not easily resolved and will require constant attention and strong leadership by the department.”