WSJ: US Marshals Lost 2,000 High-tech Radios, Possibly Endangering Witnesses; Only CBS Briefly Covered Story

July 23rd, 2013 12:46 PM

The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) has misplaced at least 2,000 high-tech radios, "creating what some within the agency view as a security risk for federal judges, endangered witnesses and others," the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. What's more, WSJ staffer Devlin Barrett noted, documents released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request suggest that the USMS's director, Obama appointee Stacia Hylton, tried to get agency officials to low-ball the estimate of how much money the lost radios cost the U.S. taxpayer. Oh, and did I mention that the missing radio problem goes back to 2011, when the USMS's Office of Strategic Technology complained that "the entire [inventory] system is broken and drastic measures need to be taken to address the issues"?

Earlier this summer, the Washington Post reported on another federal agency, the U.S. Park Police, misplacing thousands of guns. I noted at the time that the broadcast media failed to cover the story. The same appears to be true here. Of the broadcast network morning shows, only Norah O'Donnell of CBS This Morning very briefly touched on the development on Monday's edition:

The Wall Street Journal says the U.S. Marshals Service lost track of at least 2,000 specially-encrypted two-way radios. They're worth millions of dollars. Some within the agency that creates a security risk for federal judges and trial witnesses.

Actually, the number of radios may be closer to 4,000. Again from Barrett's July 22 story:

Some involved in the work of tracking the missing equipment inside the agency estimated the value of the unaccounted-for radios at $6 million or more, according to documents and interviews with some of the people involved. Radios range from about $2,000 to $5,000 or more each.

The agency concluded in March of this year, after a nationwide inventory in the wake of the report, that about 2,200 communications items, the large majority of them radios, were missing or unaccounted for, according to a document reviewed by the Journal. But several officials said that since then, one internal count has continued to grow to more than 4,000 items.

And while O'Donnell and CBS deserve credit for mentioning the WSJ report, they failed to go into elements of the story which suggest that officials tried to cover-up the goof, including the Obama appointee who heads the agency. Again from the Journal's story (emphases mine):

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.

A 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."

The name of the official described in the notes was redacted by lawyers for the USMS, citing privacy concerns.

Another note describes a January phone call with another senior Marshals executive. It shows Mr. Turner and others were being pressed by higher-ups, including the agency's director, Stacia Hylton, to devise a lower dollar value for the missing and unaccounted-for equipment, though Mr. Turner and others had maintained that government regulations say lost equipment can't be depreciated below the purchase price. The spokesman said Ms. Hylton was unavailable for comment.

A search of both Nexis and our internal DVR system shows no further mentions of the US Marshals missing radio scandal.

It's hard to imagine this happening on the previous president's watch and it not being played up as a big deal by the news media, particularly in the context of Fast & Furious and the missing guns scandal. Endemic incompetence at various federal agencies under President Bush's unwatchful eye would be the liberal media narrative. Fortunately for the present chief executive, the media are utterly uninterested in doggedly hammering the Obama administration for its failures.