Why the FBI's Missing Guns and Computers Mess Isn't — and Is — as Bad as it Looks

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Will the FBI’s headaches never end? According to Justice Department officials, a thorough internal review at the beleaguered Bureau found 449 firearms and 184 laptops missing in action.

And while the news is prime Bureau-bashing fodder (one computer reportedly contains classified documents on the now-closed Aldrich Ames case, and at least one gun was allegedly used in a robbery), FBI spokespeople appear relatively unruffled. It was the first time in ten years anyone had taken such a complete count of inventory, officials say, and many of the lost items may not be missing at all — they may have simply fallen through the record-keeping cracks.

It doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence, however. And as the Senate begins hearings into management issues at the FBI, indignant questions are likely to surface. How could something like this happen? Will things at the FBI get worse before they get better?

We’ll have to wait for definitive answers. In the meantime, TIME Justice Department correspondent Elaine Shannon offers her take on the latest FBI mini-scandal.

Where do Wednesday’s revelations rank among the FBI’s ongoing problems?

It's hard to say, since we don’t know all the facts yet. I did just get off the phone with one agent who says there may be less to this story than meets the eye. This may well just be another case of bad record keeping. As we all know, the FBI’s record-keeping system is notoriously lousy, largely because of computer problems and general incompetence.

This guy was told by systems people that some laptops were unaccounted for because they’d been cannibalized by Bureau technicians — the hard drives were used to fix other machines. We’re talking about something like ten machines a year over ten years. If you look at it that way, it’s not a terribly exciting story: Sure, the accounting is lousy, but it may be just that a certain number of machines are dismantled every once in a while.

As far as the guns go, some of them (including the one that was used in a crime) appear to have been stolen, and perhaps those thefts were not reported to the FBI. I have heard that in some instances the agents involved might have reported the burglary to the police and not to the FBI. On the other hand, the agents may have reported the burglaries to headquarters — where the reports weren’t adequately recorded.

This is just another example of the Bureau’s problems with centralized record keeping. For example, in recent days reporters have been calling the FBI asking whether Chandra Levy applied for a job as a FBI analyst. Apparently, she did — there’s a paper record of her application. But there’s no computerized record. So if that paper is lost or thrown out, there’s no record at all. And if this sort of thing is happening now, in a climate where the FBI is being much more careful, imagine how bad things must have been 10 years ago, and everything that may have been lost during that period.

Is this latest PR problem good or bad news for FBI director-designate Robert Mueller?

I think it’s probably good. It’s certainly better to have this all out on the table before the confirmation hearings even begin, rather than have these revelations surface in a year or 18 months.

In the meantime, Mueller has promised to look into the information technology issues facing the FBI.

As he should — an agency that has so much control over the lives of Americans should have an information system that’s absolutely top-notch.

So why isn’t it? My understanding is that while the agency has spent a lot of money, ostensibly on updating their systems, a lot of it has gone to things like artificial intelligence — cool stuff that doesn’t help organize anything.

System updates are a tough sell to some agents; there’s still a distinct lack of reverence for the information technology side of the house. There are folks who are suspicious of computers and want to keep everything on paper, which is an understandable impulse. The FBI has always had a mystique about it. But the truth is it’s just another government bureaucracy. FBI agents hate it when you say that. But it’s true. This is the age of wired, paperless information — and the FBI needs to get up to speed.