US marshals lost 2,200 encrypted radios worth $6 million

The US Marshals Service has lost 2,200 encrypted two-way radios and communication devices valued at $6 million or more, and officials are worried that the devices may have found their way into the hands of criminals.

Losing the devices could pose a security risk for federal judges and endangered witnesses, since criminals who may have obtained the radios could use them to listen in on security details and law-enforcement operations, Marshals officials told the Wall Street Journal.

The US Marshals Service (USMS) is responsible for the protection of court officers and buildings, including the Supreme Court. The service also runs the Witness Protection Program, which is designed to help witnesses and their families acquire new identities with authentic documentation, often to avoid being killed for testifying. The service also strives to apprehend fugitives. Marshals officials use radios to securely communicate in the field, but thousands of these devices remain unaccounted for.

Each radio ranges in price from about $2,000 to $5,000, bringing the total value of the 2,200 lost devices to about $6 million.

“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,” USMS spokesman Drew Wade told the Journal.

The agency’s Office of Strategic Technology noted the problem in a 2011 presentation. In March of this year, the agency concluded a nationwide inventory of its equipment and discovered the missing items. Some unnamed officials told the Journal that the count of missing devices has since grown to at least 4,000.

“It is apparent that negligence and incompetence has resulted in a grievous mismanagement of millions of dollars of USMS property,” stated the 2011 presentation. “Simply put, the entire system is broken and drastic measures need to be taken to address the issues…The 800 pound elephant in the room needs to finally be acknowledged.”

The agency’s spokesperson claims that there are no instances where “public safety was jeopardized as a result of this,” but the risk remains very real. One Marshals official told the Journal that one of the agency’s radios was sold a few years ago by an eBay user from Hong Kong. A Marshals Service official bought the device and upon examination, investigators noticed that it had been taken apart and reassembled.

Internal notes obtained by the Journal reveal that USMS officials have long tried to downplay the significance of the missing devices and feared media exposure.

One note describes a phone call in which USMS Director Stacia Hylton tried to come up for a lower dollar value of the missing devices to make the $6 million loss appear less significant. Another note describes a conversation in which a senior official declares that he or she will not “take the fall in the media for missing radios.” The author of the note 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.”