Politics

Smart Government update: US Marshals lose thousands of encrypted radios

Smart Government update: US Marshals lose thousands of encrypted radios

The latest pratfall from our bumbling Leviathan State comes to us courtesy of the US Marshals Service, which somehow lost track of 2,000 encrypted communications devices.  Not only is this hardware worth at least $6 million, but as the Wall Street Journal notes, it’s a potential “security risk for federal judges, endangered witnesses, and others.”

The problem, which stretches back years, was laid out in detail to agency officials at least as early as 2011, when the Marshals were deploying new versions of the radios they use to securely communicate in the field. Agency leaders continued to have difficulty tracking their equipment even after they were warned about the problems by an internal technology office, according to the documents, which were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Some Marshals officials told The Wall Street Journal that besides the wasted money and resources, the inventory problems raise the possibility that criminals could get their hands on radios and listen to them to learn details of security or law-enforcement operations. Such radios are a key communications tool of U.S. Marshals.

USMS spokesman Drew Wade said the agency believes “this issue is in large part attributable to poor record keeping as a result of an older property-management system, as opposed to equipment being lost.”

That all sounds very familiar.  The same sort of record-keeping an inventory problems were cited in a recent Inspector General report about the loss of hundreds of firearms by the US Park Police.  In this case, the problem has been going on for years, but the government didn’t want the public to know about it.  The Wall Street Journal got the story using Freedom of Information Act requests.  They also obtained evidence that officials went into crisis-management mode after those FOIA requests were filed:

A series of handwritten notes by one Marshals employee indicates that after the Journal began submitting FOIA requests, at least one person within the agency discussed the FOIA request and instructed others to communicate on the issue only by phone, not in email. An agency official said that directive was given because the agency figured it could communicate better in person than in writing. 

FOIA request for notes made or maintained by Marshals employee Robert Turner, who oversaw the inventory, produced a handwritten note that describes an exchange over the expected bad press that would come from revelations about the radio problem.

The note describes a conversation in which one senior official declares he is “not going to take the fall in the media for missing radios.” The note writer replies: “I am not taking the ‘fall’ for the agencies [sic] inability to take corrective action and ensure accountability for millions of dollars in missing radios.”

Another note describes a Dec. 19 phone call in which the note writer says, in referring to superiors, “it seems to me they are trying to ignore/avoid the FOIA.”

There are also notes describing pressure from “higher-ups, including the agency’s director, Stacia Hylton, to devise a lower dollar value for the missing and unaccounted-for equipment.”  Naturally, everyone named in these documents was unavailable for comment.  So much for the “we communicate better in person” excuse.

Officials seem optimistic that most of the missing radios are still in government hands, just without proper tracking paperwork.  But then, other officials described inventory efforts as “a maddening exercise that would never answer all questions about where the equipment was.”  Somehow it’s always a “maddening exercise” to keep track of how Big Government is spending all our money.  We’re lucky if they can give us a reasonably accurate account of where half the taxpayer cash is going.

There is disturbing evidence that not all of those encrypted radios remain in government hands:

Officials at the USMS Office of Strategic Technology who worked on the radio problem also concluded the radios went missing largely because of poor management and tracking. But officials also suspect some employees may have lied on paperwork by saying they had been destroyed, when instead they had been lost. Reporting a radio as lost requires more paperwork and raises the prospect of an internal investigation.

Several years ago, according to Marshals employees, one of the agency’s radios was put up for sale on eBay, from a seller purportedly in Hong Kong. A Marshals employee bought the device, and investigators who examined the device concluded it had been taken apart and reassembled, suggesting it may have tampered with, according to people familiar with the incident.

Newer radio models can be remotely disabled. The agency hasn’t done that for the vast majority of the missing devices because senior managers believe most aren’t lost, but were given to other law-enforcement agencies or disposed of without anyone keeping track of them, according to agency officials.

But of course, nobody really knows, because paperwork is hard, and covering up mistakes is a high priority.  I’ve got a great idea: let’s make government even larger, and give it control of our health care!

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