An audit on the FBI has revealed it is missing hundreds of laptop computers, many of which are believed to have been stolen from under the nose of the agency.
Ashen-faced FBI officials have been forced to admit 184 computers are unaccounted for and that three of these machines are believed have sensitive material on their hard disks, and one is known to hold classified data. Of the missing machines 13 are believed to have been nicked.
To make matters worse 449 weapons - including some sub-machine guns among the cache of handguns- are missing from the Bureau's armoury, of which 265 were lost and 184 stolen, according to officials.
The frankly quite alarming losses came to light during the course of comprehensive audit of the agency carried out on behalf of the US Department of Justice.
FBI officials said that the bureau has roughly 50,000 guns and 13,000 computers, or at least they did last time they looked.
Last year the State Department admitted that it had "misplaced" a laptop containing highly classified information and agents of Britains security services have been known to leave laptops in Tapas bar after a night on the razz, so the phenomenon of spooks not taking care of PCs is hardly unknown. However the extent of the FBI's loss will be extremely hard for the agency, which is trusted with America's domestic security, to explain away.
The losses reportedly took place over the course of 11 years and are attributed a variety of causes including retiring agents keeping hold of weapons and the loss of laptops as they were been transferred around the different offices that shared them. This doesn't go anywhere near getting the FBI off the hook on the issue or restoring public trust in the organisation, which has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months.
Chief among these is the arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, after his admission that he spied for the Russians for the best part of two decades, selling closely guarded secrets to the Soviet Union. The Bureau is also accused of screwing up an investigation into a scientist who is accused of stealing secrets from the Los Alamos nuclear research facility.
Attorney-General John Ashcroft is expected to make a statement on the missing equipment and the issue is sure the crop up when two senior FBI officials appear before the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee today. ®