The two homeless men were looking for something they could sell to buy drugs. In California's San Mateo County last month, the men thought they had hit pay dirt: some locked containers in the woods. Inside, wrapped in olive drab, were bricklike bars, which they knew from movies was C-4, a highly dangerous military explosive. Altogether the two men, who are in custody, walked off with 200 pounds of potential mayhem.
The material belonged to local law enforcement and the FBI, which used it for training purposes. Its theft from an unguarded, relatively easily accessible container serves to highlight a gap in the nation's homeland security.
Last week, a congressional subcommittee, in hearings in California, learned that the theft of explosives from similar facilities is not unusual - last year there were 79 reported thefts of explosives, including six from law-enforcement facilities. In addition, no single federal agency knows where the explosive stockpiles are or inspects them. And some of these public facilities are unguarded, hooked up at best with burglar alarms.
"This was a microcosm of national unpreparedness at a time when we're involved in the global war on terrorism," says Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California, whose district includes San Mateo. "This is a huge national gap in our security apparatus," says Mr. Lantos, who plans to cosponsor legislation with Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut to deal with the issue. Mr. Shays, chairman of the subcommittee on National Security, says the problem is "more typical than we care to admit" and he has asked the General Accounting Office to study the problem.
Local law-enforcement officials require storage areas so they can train bomb squads and canine corps. They also keep explosives on hand to detonate any illegal bombs they find. The actual storage areas must meet the standards set by federal law. There is no requirement, however, for inspections by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Instead, it is a voluntary standard. According to Lantos only 10 percent of the public facilities have asked to be inspected. ATF couldn't confirm that figure.
Shays says he plans to hold more hearings on the issue and will likely introduce some legislation this year. "I think we might propose that the federal government inspect the public sites and that the public sites at least conform to the private sites," says Shays, adding, "But there is more work than this that is required."
For example, Shays and Lantos say that as far as they know, there is no national database on where bomb squads around the nation store their explosives. They say no one knows how many state and local facilities actually exist. There are 450 bomb squads around the nation. "There is an assumption each one has a facility," says Lantos. "But there could be hundreds or even thousands."
Lantos says he was told that the San Mateo facility was no worse than the average storage facility and better than some. But, both congressmen said they were stunned when they visited the San Mateo storage site. "I expected fencing around it," says Shays, describing "tiny shacks" that held the explosives. At one point there had been a solar-powered burglar alarm. But, the congressmen discovered it has not been working for 10 years. "The site was pathetic," says Lantos who wants a requirement that the sites have working alarm systems.
There are 12,167 private companies licensed to store explosives. They must meet federal standards and risk losing their license if they fail inspections. Last year, ATF conducted 7,883 inspections and found 1,165 safety violations. Explosives experts say that security at some of these facilities is shockingly lax. "I routinely go out to these facilities and they may be stored in a wooden shack with a Master padlock," says one bomb squad chief who asked not to be named.
Mr. Shays believes one of the problems is underfunding for the ATF. The agency has 420 field inspectors. It typically takes a week to conduct an inspection. "In theory they are supposed to inspect but in practice that can't be, they don't have enough people," says Shays who intends to try to get more funding for the agency to hire more inspectors. The ATF says it has no comment on this issue.
According to one bomb squad officer, there is a significant amount of explosives stolen from commercial sites. He says much of this ends up in the hands of other construction companies or competitors. But, Lantos says the ATF when pressed admitted that they don't recover all of the stolen goods.
The thefts sometimes involve materials that can be used for explosives. For example, in June, a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer, was stolen in Kentucky. As it turned out, the thief was interested in the truck, not the fertilizer, which was the same type used in the Oklahoma City bombing. "It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it rings bells," says Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute.
Last week, it rang bells once again when a convicted counterfeiter in Chicago is alleged to have tried to purchase for bomb purposes 1,500 pounds of fertilizer that he thought was ammonium nitrate. He apparently wanted to blow up a federal courthouse as part of a grudge against the legal system. The Institute recently began a new security initiative, a voluntary program for its dealers to maintain records of all sales and alert law enforcement about any suspicious activity. It is asking members to require a government-issued photo identification. "We're telling them, 'Know your customer,' " says Ms. Mathers.