FBI whistleblower’s experience boosts new call for forensic reform
The National Academy of Sciences is calling for an overhaul of forensic investigation and the role it plays in fighting crime. The New York Times has a good overview. Most compelling is the call for national standards for forensic investigation and removing forensic lab work from police departments and investigative agencies, to ensure independence. It’s a worthy goal.
I spoke with former FBI forensic investigator Frederic Whitehurst years ago for a paper in college. Whitehurst, executive director of the Forensic Justice Project, part of the National Whistleblowers Center, blew the whistle numerous times on sloppy FBI forensic work — at one point, proving that FBI methods were quite literally inadequate to tell explosives from piss in a bottle. He told me that, like in any job, there was pressure to deliver results — especially if they reinforced what FBI investigators wanted to hear. The pressure to please and a lack of scientific rigor led to what he saw as faulty results in a number of high profile cases, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the UNABOM investigation, and the OJ Simpson murder case.
Most notably, he argued an explosive device intended for George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993 was not similar to devices previously confirmed to be built by Iraqi Intelligence Service. The implication was that Iraq was not behind the assassination attempt at all. The bombs’ alleged similarity was the grounds on which the FBI tied the IIS to the bomb and Whitehurst contended that it was the misrepresentation of his findings that led to President Clinton’s retaliatory missile strike on Iraq.
While the Department of Justice came to the conclusion that the FBI forensic labs needed a procedural overhaul, they denied Whitehurst’s suggestions that their findings were flawed. Whitehurst himself was transferred to the less prestigious paint analysis unit for his trouble.
The DOJ maintains an archive of their investigations into Whitehurst’s many allegations of FBI wrongdoing and lack of scientific rigor here. It’s great reading. It’s also all the evidence you need to side with the National Academy of Sciences. Even if Whitehurst were a lone crank (and his continued advocacy suggests otherwise,) he paints an all-too-plausible picture of what can go wrong when forensic science is tied too closely to the aims of crimefighters.