FBI record handling under fire

DOJ inspector general report

The FBI's computer systems are "antiquated," but it was poor performance by personnel that led to the FBI's failure to disclose more than 1,000 documents to lawyers defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the Justice Department has concluded.

An exhaustive investigation of the failure points to chaotic record handling, repeated failures by FBI field offices to respond to headquarters requests for documents and lax oversight by senior FBI managers.

Computer systems, which had been blamed, are "in need of substantial improvement," but in his March 19 report, Justice Inspector General Glenn Fine said, "Human error, not the inadequate computer system, was the chief cause of the failure to provide the defense with these items."

Fine recommends that the FBI consider disciplining senior agents — not for losing the documents but for failing to respond effectively when the loss was discovered.

The FBI learned as early as January 2001 that hundreds of documents had not been turned over to prosecutors. But Danny Defenbaugh, who headed the Oklahoma City bombing investigation, and Mark White, supervisory special agent during the investigation, failed to notify prosecutors or FBI headquarters of this fact until May 7, a week before McVeigh was to be executed.

The execution was postponed until June 11 so defense lawyers could review 1,033 documents the FBI had not turned over during the 1997 trial. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Fine to investigate the failure last summer.

In an investigation report that runs nearly 200 pages, Fine calls FBI computer systems "antiquated and inefficient." The report says the FBI's 7-year-old Automated Case Support system is "so difficult to use that many agents and supervisors have abandoned the effort."

But outdated technology was not the main problem. Document management was chaotic.

For the most part, documents were kept in paper form and stored in file cabinets. "Documents could easily be lost or placed in the wrong filing cabinet drawer and the error would not be noticed," Fine wrote.

In addition, each FBI field office assigned its own set of serial numbers to the documents it generated related to the bombing investigation. The practice made it impossible for agents on the bombing task force to tell by looking at the serial numbers whether documents were missing.

In early 2001, when field offices were asked to search for bombing documents, many responses were "untimely, and in some cases, offices did not respond at all to urgent requests for information," Fine said.

He said technology offers hope for improvement. "The FBI is trying to develop upgraded information technology systems as part of a project it calls Trilogy," he wrote.

In part, Trilogy is supposed to equip the FBI with a computer network to interconnect FBI offices and provide agents with access to information and applications at their desktops.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the FBI is overhauling its records management systems and is reorganizing "to recognize that the creation, maintenance, use and dissemination of our records is a core function that must be fully supported by management as a priority."

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