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Homeland security/Law enforcement

The Department of Justice plans actions to reduce overlap in explosives investigations, but monitoring is needed to ensure successful implementation

Why Area Is Important

In fiscal year 2009, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), both components of the Department of Justice (Justice), initiated over 1,600 cases involving explosives incidents such as actual or attempted bombings with improvised explosive devices. Since 2004, Justice has taken actions intended to address duplication and overlap in the areas of explosives investigations jurisdiction, training, information sharing and use of databases, and laboratory forensic analysis. However, a 2009 report from Justice's Inspector General found there has been little progress since 2004 in addressing overlap and duplication. In response to the Inspector General's report, in August 2010, the Acting Deputy Attorney General issued a protocol for assigning lead agency jurisdiction in explosives investigations. The memorandum accompanying the protocol directed the ATF and FBI to take actions to conduct assessments of its explosives operations and make recommendations by November 1, 2010, for consolidating and eliminating redundancies, where appropriate.

What GAO Found

GAO has reviewed actions planned by Justice to reduce overlap and duplication and improve explosives investigation coordination between the ATF and FBI. GAO found that the actions Justice is proposing should address most of these issues, but additional monitoring by Congress and agency personnel could help ensure that plans to address these long-standing challenges are fully implemented and successful since Justice did not follow through on past efforts to achieve these same objectives. GAO has reported that federal agencies can enhance and sustain their collaborative efforts by creating the means to monitor and evaluate their efforts to identify areas for improvement. In his August 2010 memorandum directed to ATF and FBI, the Deputy Attorney General highlighted four areas of explosives investigations where duplication and redundant efforts needed to be addressed: jurisdiction, explosives training, shared explosives databases, and laboratories.

Jurisdiction.The Deputy Attorney General noted that defining lead agency jurisdiction over explosives investigations has been a persistent problem for Justice; led to confusion among federal, state, and local law enforcement; and resulted in duplication of effort between ATF and FBI. GAO's ongoing work on law enforcement coordination found that disputes have occurred over the past 5 years between the agencies regarding jurisdiction of explosives investigations and there is potential overlap. For example, Justice had designated FBI as the lead agency for incidents related to domestic terrorism but had not defined the term, so ATF and FBI have had disputes about when an incident would be related to terrorism, and, therefore, under FBI's jurisdiction. A 2009 Inspector General report found that, despite Justice's attempts to coordinate explosives investigations and activities, the components have developed separate and conflicting approaches to these investigations. The August 2010 directive attempted to resolve the dispute regarding jurisdiction by citing a definition for both "International Terrorism" and "Domestic Terrorism," and outlining factors associated with an explosive incident that indicate a presumptive nexus to terrorism. The directive also intended to clarify roles and responsibilities in all other explosives jurisdiction matters. However, it is too soon to know to what extent the directive will resolve the dispute.

Explosives training. ATF and FBI continue to separately operate their own explosives-training facilities and programs, both of which are located at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, resulting in potential duplication.[1]Regarding facilities, for example, the FBI's Hazardous Devices School trains and certifies federal, state, and local bomb technicians and bomb squads. Similarly, ATF's National Center for Explosives Training and Research offers explosives courses to ATF and state and local law enforcement personnel. Regarding programs, both components offer post-blast explosives training.[2]According to ATF and FBI data, the cost of the training facilities in fiscal year 2010 totaled $11.0 million and $7.5 million, respectively.[3]In August 2010, the Deputy Attorney General directed the components to provide a joint plan to consolidate training programs with recommendations for consolidating and eliminating redundancies. Justice officials said the components submitted a plan in November 2010 that proposed consolidating post-blast training programs and curricula beginning in the spring of 2011, which is consistent with the Deputy Attorney General's directive. Justice officials also stated that both components concluded they should continue to operate separate explosives-training facilities because of the high demand and wait lists for explosives courses offered at each facility. By continually monitoring the need to support both facilities, Justice's ability to determine that its resources are being used effectively could be strengthened.

Shared explosives database.In 2009, Justice's Inspector General reported that ATF and FBI have not effectively consolidated and maintained one distinct explosives incident reporting database, as directed by the Attorney General. Also, the Inspector General found that although FBI had discontinued use of its database that compiles information on explosives incidents and transferred its historical data into ATF's Bomb and Arson Tracking System,[4]FBI had not subsequently input any additional explosives incident information. In addition, ATF had not consistently reported all its explosives incidents to the Bomb and Arson Tracking System. Taken together, these omissions undermined the components' ability to accurately determine trends in explosives incidents. In response to the August 2010 protocol, according to Justice officials, the components have developed and plan to implement information-sharing procedures in early 2011 to ensure that FBI bomb technicians and state and local bomb squads have access to and report explosives incidents to the reporting system. By monitoring implementation of this plan, Justice would be better positioned to obtain feedback for improving both policy and operational effectiveness.

Explosives laboratories.Both ATF and FBI have laboratories that perform forensic analysis of explosives evidence. Specifically, ATF operates laboratories in Maryland, Georgia, and California, while FBI uses its Virginia laboratory for forensic analysis. For fiscal year 2010, ATF reported the cost to operate its three laboratories was $11.2 million,[5]and FBI reported the cost to conduct analysis at its laboratory was $6.6 million.[6]In 2004, the Attorney General required Justice to establish a Lab Board to examine its available laboratory resources and workloads, analyze demands, and make recommendations to the Deputy Attorney General on the most productive allocation of resources. While Justice established the Lab Board, its Inspector General found no record of a report or recommendations. In August 2010, the Deputy Attorney General directed the Lab Board to reconvene to develop recommendations by November 1, 2010, for further integration of Justice's laboratory capabilities, among other things. According to Justice officials, the components submitted a progress report in November 2010 that outlines areas they believed could produce operational efficiencies and better coordination. These areas include the adoption of a common laboratory information management system and coordinated training of laboratory personnel. By continually monitoring these actions, Justice's ability to ensure that the components follow through on these areas to better coordinate and integrate laboratory resources could be enhanced.

[1]FBI also operates the Secure Training Facility and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosives Device Training Facility as part of the Hazardous Devices School in Alabama.

[2]Post-blast explosives training teaches methods and processes for investigating explosives scenes.

[3]$7.4 million of ATF's cost were for construction.

[4]The Bomb and Arson Tracking System is intended to be Justice's single source for reporting and sharing explosives incident information.

[5]According to ATF, the laboratory costs include explosives, arson, and firearms forensic analysis.

[6]According to FBI, the costs for explosives forensic analysis does not include Laboratory Division employees who perform forensic analysis on improvised-explosive-device-related submissions.

Actions Needed

Continually monitoring these efforts can help key decision makers within the agencies, as well as clients and stakeholders, obtain feedback for improving policy and operational effectiveness. Justice, ATF, and FBI officials have planned or begun actions to reduce duplication and overlap, and achieve efficiencies, which Justice officials stated are responsive to the Deputy Attorney General's directives. These actions represent positive steps that, if implemented effectively, should lead to more efficient approaches to explosives investigations and related activities such as training, information sharing, and forensic analysis. However, given that the components did not fully follow through on past efforts to achieve these same objectives, by continually monitoring the components' actions, Congress and Justice would be better positioned to ensure that the plans have their intended effect and are enforced.

Framework for Analysis

The information contained in this analysis is based on GAO's ongoing work for the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on law enforcement coordination and recent Inspector General reports and internal efforts at Justice to address the Inspector General's recommendations to improve explosives-related coordination between ATF and FBI. GAO interviewed representatives from the Deputy Attorney General's Office, FBI, and ATF to discuss actions planned or under way to remedy duplication and overlap in explosives-related operations. GAO also obtained and analyzed fiscal year 2010 cost data from the components, and assessed the data sources. GAO found the components' cost data reliable for the purposes of this report.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact Eileen R. Larence at (202) 512-8777 or

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