Threats of harm to federal judges that aren't reviewed for days. Investigations into suspicious behavior at courthouses that are sloppily done. Lack of money to identify and prevent acts of violence in and outside work.
Three years after it was warned by the Justice Department's inspector general to improve security, the U.S. Marshals Service is languishing in its efforts to protect the nation's 2,200 federal judges, according to a new report. That is putting federal judges in danger even as threats against them have almost doubled in the past five years.
"The USMS must exhibit a greater sense of urgency in improving its capability to assess reported threats against the judiciary, creating and sharing protective intelligence on potential threats, and completing the implementation of enhanced security measures," states the 112-page study released Wednesday by Justice IG Glenn Fine.
Fine's latest review raises questions of proper use of resources in safeguarding judges, an issue that probably will be examined at the Senate confirmation hearings of Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey.
As a federal judge in the 1990s, Mukasey was given bodyguards at a cost of at least $28 million, even as department officials argued about how much of a threat he really faced.
The report credits the U.S. Marshals for some improvements following a spike in acts of violence and reports of threats in 2005 and 2006. Among the improvements were installation of alarms at judges' homes. Most judges were described in the report as somewhat satisfied with that added level of protection.
But investigators found that as recently as October 2006, the U.S. Marshals' overall security efforts had diminished, with a backlog of 1,190 cases of reported threats to review. About two-thirds of the cases reviewed in 2005 and 2006 were not assessed within three days to seven days of a reported threat.
Even when threats were reviewed, the cases were not examined fully enough, leaving judges at risk, investigators said. A special office created by the agency in 2004 to identify potential threats against judges, federal prosecutors and court staff has floundered because staff and other resources were diverted to investigate reported threats.
"Given the importance of the issue of judicial protection, and the threats to federal judges in the past, we believe that the Marshals Service should move quickly to implement its plans to improve the protection of the federal judiciary," Fine said.
The Marshals Service said in a statement Wednesday it appreciated the report and noted there was "no greater sense of urgency in our agency than ensuring the security of the judiciary." The agency said it would take additional steps to improve protection and seek more money for security.
The report listed Nevada as having 227 threats to federal judges and other court officials, more than any other federal judicial district.
In interviews, Nevada court officials blamed the high numbers on an increase in telephone, e-mail and Internet Web blog threats during a series of tax protester trials in Las Vegas in 2005 and 2006. Ordinarily, judges and other court officials average fewer than 40 threats per year, they said.
Judicial security received national attention in early 2005 after an unemployed electrician broke into the home of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago and fatally shot her husband and mother.
In the aftermath of the Lefkow deaths, judges criticized the Marshals Service -- then led by Benigno Reyna -- as insufficiently responsive to their security. An inspector general's report a year earlier had highlighted shortcomings in how marshals assess threats. Reyna resigned in July 2005.
In a 2006 survey conducted by the inspector general and released Wednesday, about 87 percent of the 2,141 judges who responded said they were now either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the Marshals' performance. About two-thirds of the judges overall acknowledged receiving a threat at least once during their career.
According to the survey, many judges cited a greater need for marshals to improve intelligence collection and identify potential threats. They explained that unknown general dangers associated with their job -- particularly among those who hear gang, terrorism and organized crime cases -- were greater than specific threats reported against them.
In the case of Mukasey, The Associated Press reported last month that the attorney general nominee had been assigned a security team of deputy marshals while he presided as a federal judge over a high-profile terror trial in the early 1990s in Manhattan. He kept the protections, code-named "Eagle Detail," until 2005 -- nine years after the trial ended -- at a cost of about $10,000 a day.
The detail was withdrawn shortly after deputy marshals protecting Mukasey and U.S. District Judge Kevin T. Duffy filed a grievance accusing the two jurists and their wives of assigning them valet-like chores. The Marshals Service assigns security details to about 250 judges and other court officers annually.
The agency has said most of the money was used to pay salaries and benefits for Mukasey's security detail and would have been spent whether they were assigned to protect the judge or someone else. The cost of protecting at least one other judge in the same Manhattan courthouse fell far short of what the government spent to protect Mukasey, according to an AP review of financial records.
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