State Dept. loses, then recovers, anti-terrorism computers worth $30 M

For several months, according to an Inspector General's report discovered by a group of former State Department employees, the Dept. did not know the whereabouts of some 400 laptops. And now, somehow, they've all been found.

A blog maintained by some former US Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who found their security credentials inexplicably suspended in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, is being credited for having shed light on a serious State Dept. problem: A February audit by the Inspector General's office determined that as many as 400 laptop computers belonging to a key anti-terrorism training task force were unaccounted for, among other possibly lost State Dept. assets.

As the report revealed, and as the "Dead Men Working" blog first reported on March 31, "the annual inventory of security equipment, conducted separately from the inventory of non-expendable property in other sections of the Department, showed nearly three million dollars of security equipment unaccounted for."

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Among the missing property were those laptop computers, presumably with high-level information on them, if not classified. "We're not talking about a missing laptop or two," read the blog post. "A Department-wide audit found hundreds of laptops unaccounted for and identified DS, now rushing to close the barn door before the scandal really breaks, as having the laxest control of any bureau in the agency."

The blog's proprietors call themselves Concerned Foreign Service Officers, and on their Web site they describe themselves as "founded by a group of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who united in mutual support after their security clearances were indefinitely suspended by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) based on minor and unsubstantiated allegations."

It was the blog post -- not even the Inspector General's report itself -- that caught the attention of the Washington diplomatic community, and by extension, the CQ Politics Web site of Congressional Quarterly. Its report credits CFSO with the discovery indicated the issue was discovered after an internal audit that took place about three months ago. The loss had possible national security implications: some of the laptops were assigned to the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program.

Shortly after the audit was completed, CQ learned, agency surrogates quickly moved in an attempt to locate the missing equipment. Outright theft was considered, though there was no evidence of it.

Meanwhile, officials at the State Dept. apparently attempted to keep the problem under wraps to sidestep bad publicity, according to the CQ report. One official demanded that office managers get on top of the problem before it "blew up." He feared that if the loss were to become public, it could develop into a scandal akin to the one experienced by the Veterans Administration when it lost laptops containing the data on 26 million veterans in 2006.

[CLARIFICATION: It was an auditor's report, as reported by CQ Politics, that stated the final tally for the missing equipment was $30 million.]

Even though the laptops have since been found, at least one person close to the situation found it quite troubling.

"I would expect many of the laptops to be 'found' in the sense that they may not have actually left a State Department facility," an anonymous source told CQ. "But if they don't know where they are, that is bad management, and they may as well have disappeared."

On Tuesday, one CFSO blogger named "Steve" basked in the glory, writing for "Dead Men Working," "For years, we have been saying that if [the Bureau of] Diplomatic Security will not police itself, if Diplomatic Security cannot run itself in a responsible and law-abiding manner, then other people, outside people, like the GAO or the Justice Department's Committee on Integrity and Ethics in Government, should look into the matter. Because, left to its own devices, Diplomatic Security is poorly managed. When nobody is watching, it freely flaunts laws and regulations and fosters an internal culture in which, literally, there is no accountability. But put their shenanigans in the newspapers, tell the public what Diplomatic Security is doing, and...FOUND EM!!!

"No need to thank us," Steve closed. "It's what we do."

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