In the wake of the FBI's admission that it cannot find hundreds of its weapons and laptop computers, several bureau officials joined lawmakers in strongly criticizing the agency's structure, technology and institutional culture during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Senate Judiciary Committee members said the disclosure Tuesday that 449 firearms and 184 computers are missing represents the latest in a string of recent FBI failures that expose the agency's many flaws. At least one of the weapons may have been used to commit a crime, and one of the computers contained classified data.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, said the development highlights "very, very serious management problems" at the FBI.
"In recent months, we have seen a number of indications that the FBI's management is badly in need of an overhaul," Leahy said.
In condemning the agency, Leahy and others cited the case of former FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who pleaded guilty to charges of spying for Russia; the late disclosure of thousands of pages of material in the Oklahoma City bombing case that delayed the execution of Timothy J. McVeigh; and missteps in the investigation of nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee, who at one point was accused of spying for China.
"You would think that after the absolute fiasco of the Hanssen matter, the FBI would have learned," Leahy said.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the committee's ranking Republican, added, "Lax administrative controls over sensitive materials like these cannot be tolerated."
At a news conference, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft defended the FBI, which falls under the Justice Department umbrella. He labeled the bureau's inability to account for the guns and computers "a serious circumstance" but said, "I am concerned that the [FBI] not be discredited unduly."
He added: "The way you define the quality of organizations is how they respond to the problems. Frankly . . . the FBI has been responding constructively."
Kenneth Senser, an 18-year CIA veteran brought in by the FBI to revamp the bureau's security procedures, told lawmakers that a four-point plan to account for all computers containing classified information is now in place.
Bureau security officials will stress to all employees the importance of the protection of laptops, ensure that every assigned laptop is counted, immediately report missing laptops and institute periodic physical inspections of every laptop by computer specialists, Senser said.
Also, Ashcroft said Wednesday that he has asked the Justice Department's inspector general "to find out how this happens and to help us design a way to keep it from happening."
Last week, Ashcroft announced that he was responding to the FBI's troubles by granting the inspector general's office the authority to investigate abuses by the agency, a move that several senators praised at the hearing.
"I have been saying for years the FBI should not be allowed to police itself," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), "and I am encouraged by this new step toward the establishment of a free and independent oversight entity."
Two FBI investigators who examined the agency's conduct during the 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, told the committee they were threatened and intimidated during their inquiry. Their work was done through the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility, its equivalent of internal affairs. They blasted the "culture of arrogance" and resistance to change that they said pervades the FBI's Senior Executive Service.
John Roberts said that, during their internal Ruby Ridge inquiry, he and fellow investigator John Werner were told by SES personnel "that we did not work for the FBI, that our assignment to the Ruby Ridge investigation could have an impact on our careers and that being assigned to the investigation would not be good for us in the end."
Werner, who has retired from the bureau, had harsh words for upper-level FBI officials.
"Hiding behind a wall of arrogance, senior managers . . . are intolerant of any suggestion that their way is wrong," Werner said. "They use intimidation and retaliation against anyone who would be so impertinent as to challenge their interests."
Both men suggested that the agency suffers from an inability to recognize its flaws and make the necessary changes to correct them.
Werner said that the creation of an inspector general's office within the FBI would be preferable to Ashcroft's move expanding the authority of the Justice Department's inspector general to include the FBI.
"The FBI, [like] every law enforcement agency, should be forced to conduct its own internal affairs investigations in an honest and straightforward manner," Werner said. "The [Justice Department inspectors] would always be considered outsiders who would never gain the FBI employees' confidence and cooperation."
The FBI's technological infrastructure also came under attack at the hearing. Bob Dies, a former IBM executive who was hired by the FBI last year to overhaul its computer systems, told the committee that "FBI information technology has had no meaningful improvements in over six years."
Times staff writer Jube Shiver contributed to this story.