FBI Forensic Science : Incompetence or Malice? [UPDATE : US DOJ/OIG Report on the FBI Forensic Laboratory]

“The FBI could be the most dangerous agency in the country if not scrutinized carefully.”

FBI director Louis Freeh
Tainting Evidence — Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab

August 29 2022 — Last week, FBI Las Vegas tweeted a picture of a special agent fingerprinting child actress Margaret O’Brien during her visit to the FBI in January 1946. This tweet brought back quite some memories… Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

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“Rudolph’s approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a forensic scientist. At best, Rudolph’s explanation for his opinion in Psinakis represents incompetence.”

Inspector General’s Report [FBI Labgate]

(April 15 1997)

UPDATE (September 12 2022) — As I have explained, there is ZERO evidence that an explosion occurred aboard Pan Am 103 at Lockerbie. The so-called ‘SEMTEX evidence’ is an obvious case of laboratory contamination. This should not come as a surprise for those who understand how government scientists are selected…

Here is an old story worth reading again. Please keep in mind that all the facts were known at the time of the Lockerbie trial. People such Thomas Thurman — the hero of Lockerbie — were removed from the FBI explosive Lab. And yet, the defense did not even called Thurman as a witness at the trial. Why on earth not?

For nearly three years, since shortly after being assigned to Terry Rudolph as a trainee in June 1986, Fred Whitehurst had been complaining with increasing bitterness to the FBI lab’s management about Rudolph’s sloppy work. Rudolph was the sole explosives-residue analyst at the FBI laboratory — examining the trace evidence left on debris after explosions. Yet Fred Whitehurst claimed Rudolph rarely did confirmatory tests, only occasionally ran standard tests for comparison purposes on the lab machinery, and never seemed to clean his workbench. Whitehurst was convinced that Rudolph drew conclusions that were not justified scientifically by the data from his examinations and seemed to relish having a work area that resembled a pigsty.

Rudolph’s work in the Steve Psinakis case crystallized Whitehurst’s worst fears. Although Rudolph had assured prosecutors that his explosives-residue examinations in the case were sufficient, and that his conclusions would stand up under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles “Ben” Burch had doubts. Facing Lloyd Snyder as a defense expert, Burch tried to guard himself against potential disaster by retrieving the key evidence, including a knife and a pair of pliers, and asking Whitehurst, as the FBI lab’s current explosives-residue examiner, to take another look.

Whitehurst found what he had come to expect from Rudolph. The lab report showed that a white powder recovered from the tools had been identified as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a powerful, brisant explosive, by means of liquid chromatography. However, there was no mention of possible sources of PETN residue other than explosives, and no mass spectrometry or X-ray diffraction testing that would have confirmed the initial identification. Rudolph seemed to have reached a definite conclusion about the presence of PETN that was not scientifically justified by the tests conducted. He had also been incredibly vague about what he had done. His laboratory report dated February 18, 1982, stated that the tools had been “instrumentally examined.” Whitehurst suspected the vagueness was deliberate. As Rudolph had told him while he was still a trainee: “The more cryptic the [lab] notes, the less chance the defense counsel has to question the results.”

Until you face a real defense challenge, that is. Although Whitehurst confirmed Rudolph’s main result — tiny amounts of PETN had been found, picograms, one millionth of one millionth of a gram — Whitehurst was troubled. In Whitehurst’s view, Rudolph was careless with evidence; traces of explosives were probably everywhere in his work area. With no background-contamination test against which to judge the result, such tiny amounts could have come from anywhere. Despite Whitehurst’s repeated complaints, there seemed to have been no check or monitoring for background contamination since he arrived at the FBI laboratory three years earlier.

Whitehurst had been pondering all this on the flight to San Francisco. If, under oath on the witness stand, he was asked about it, he knew he would have to reveal his reservations. And briefed by Lloyd Snyder, the defense lawyers were sure to ask the critical questions. But as he mulled it all over, his dilemma deepened. Learning that the prosecutor had called for Whitehurst’s tests and now intended to introduce them without consulting the court, judge Robert Schnacke dismissed the jury for the afternoon to determine the admissibility of the new evidence. He was miffed and ruled against; Whitehurst would not testify.

Rudolph, meanwhile, was exposed at the evidentiary hearing, as Whitehurst had imagined he would be. Asked why certain tests he was describing were not in his notes, Rudolph replied: “When I examine a case I put in my notes things that are important to me when I…give testimony. I don’t write my notes for the United States Attorney. I don’t write my notes for the defense. I write my notes for myself.” Questioned further, Rudolph went on to say that he had done thousands of tests since 1982 and could not possibly remember them all. This prompted judge Schnacke to ask the obvious: “Isn’t that one of the reasons you keep notes?”

The judge found some of Rudolph’s assertions so absurd that he seemed to hesitate about the admissibility of the testimony as a whole. Rudolph insisted that he had relied on factors other than just his liquid chromatography test in making his PETN identification. One of these was his eyesight. The white powder from the knife and a known sample of PETN “compared essentially identically” under a microscope. He implied that confirmatory testing took too long. Liquid chromatography took a few minutes, whereas something like X-ray powder defraction, a confirmatory test, would take forty-five minutes. In the end the judge allowed his testimony, insisting that if Rudolph persisted in being so positive about his confirmation he might have to intervene. “Even with the FBI, completion of all necessary processes in investigations is an awfully good idea,” Judge Schnacke concluded.

When the defense moved to exclude Rudolph’s testimony because it offered an investigative rather than scientific opinion, Psinakis’s lawyer raised a key issue: was Rudolph primarily an FBI agent or a scientist? Rudolph seemed to bolster his forensic certainty by citing his training as an FBI agent, a training that he implied gave him some special investigative insight, the defense claimed. It seemed to fall to the judge to make it clear. “He is entitled to tell the jury what he based his conclusion on,” he announced dismissing the defense motion. “Some of these things may be a little strange for a scientist, but he will be testifying as a scientist, not an FBI agent.” Years later, following its own investigation, the inspector general’s office was to agree. “Rudolph’s approach represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a forensic scientist,” the report concluded. “At best, Rudolph’s explanation for his opinion in Psinakis represents incompetence.” [Tainting Evidence — Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab]

“Thurman had an undergraduate degree in political science and had no business at all in a national laboratory in a supervisory capacity. He would not have been allowed to wash bottles in a real scientific laboratory.”

Dr Fred Whitehurst (Communication to Intel Today)

Did you know?

Pierre Péan was one of the great French investigative journalists. In Manipulations Africaines (African Manipulations), published in February 2001, he investigated the sabotage of UTA Flight 772. Péan accused Thomas Thurman, a Federal Bureau of Investigation explosives expert, of fabricating false evidence in both the Lockerbie and UTA cases.

FLASHBACK — On December 28 1988, Michael Charles, Inspector of Accidents for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch [AAIB] announced that the two pieces of metal discovered by FBI agent Thomas Thurman show convincing evidence of a high performance plastic explosive.

Out of 4 million pieces collected at Lockerbie, only these two pieces — BOTH discovered by Thomas Thurman — were ever reported to indicate the presence of explosive residues (SEMTEX).

During Crown Precognition, Thurman finally admitted that he had lied all along about his role in the Lockerbie affair.

“I was told that, as far as the CIA (the Agency) was concerned, it was not to be involved in the chain of custody and that the device was to be regarded as having come directly from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

I took the device and said that I would obtain instructions from headquarters as to how to deal with the situation. I showed the timing device and photograph to the laboratory director and he agreed with the identification. This was the first occasion on which I ‘fronted’ a find for the Agency.

The decision to present the situation in this manner was made within the administrative confines of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I do not know who made the decision. For public consumption, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had provided the timer.”

Published on April 15 1997, the US DOJ/OIG Report on the FBI Forensic Laboratory states:

“Williams and Thurman merit special censure for their work. It recommends that Thurman, who has a degree in political science, be reassigned outside the Explosives Unit laboratory and that only scientists work in its explosives section.”

According to Fred Whitehurst, the Explosives Unit laboratory was a criminal unit operating inside the FBI.

In a recent communication, Dr Whitehurst told me:

“I truly believe that the FBI lab Explosives Unit was set up to fix cases. There were no scientists in the unit and yet for years Thurman and others rewrote my reports without my knowledge or authorization. It was most strange that the people the FBI sent to Lockerbie were not scientists but Explosives Unit personnel.

The unit still exists and I believe is still manned by the same sorts of folks. I believe that Thurman had an undergraduate degree in political science and had no business at all in a national laboratory in a supervisory capacity. He would not have been allowed to wash bottles in a real scientific laboratory.”

Like Dr Thomas Hayes and Allen Feraday, FBI Thomas Thurman was a known quantity long before the Lockerbie trial. And yet nothing was done. 

Stay tuned!


The fingerprints of Margaret O’Brien brought the total number on file to 100,000,000. Since 1924, the FBI has been the single U.S. repository for fingerprints. Computers were first installed to search these files in 1980.

Since 1999, the FBI has stored and accessed its fingerprint database via the digital IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), which currently holds the fingerprints and criminal records of over 51 million criminal record subjects and over 1.5 million civil (non-criminal) fingerprint records. US Visit currently holds a repository of the fingerprints of over 50 million non-US citizens. [Vintage photographs show the massive FBI’s fingerprint files, 1944]

Perhaps, you believe that ‘fingerprint evidence’ is rock solid evidence. Allow me to quote a very important analysis [Tainting Evidence — Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab] :

Occasionally, proficiency testing in one specialist area of forensic science exposes widespread incompetence. In 1995, Collaborative Testing Services tested 156 U.S. fingerprint examiners — the cornerstone of forensic science — in a proficiency test sponsored by their professional body, the International Association for Identification. Only 44 percent (68) of those tested identified all seven latent fingerprints correctly. Some 56 percent (88) got at least one wrong, 4 percent (6) of these failing to identify any. In all, incorrect identifications made up 22 percent of the total attempted.

In other words, in more than one in five instances “damning evidence would have been presented against the wrong person,” noted David Grieve, editor of the fingerprinters’ magazine, the Journal of Forensic Identification. Worse still, examiners knew they were being tested and were thus presumably more careful and freer from law enforcement pressures. Calling for immediate action, Grieve concluded: “If one in five latent fingerprint examiners truly possesses knowledge, skill or ability at a level below an acceptable and understood baseline, then the entire profession is in jeopardy.” The same must be true of every suspect in the country, the vast majority of whom never get a fingerprint expert onto their defense team or any chance of a reexamination. Many crime laboratories routinely destroy fingerprint evidence.

It is clear that forensic science is massively error-ridden, while the flaws in the sole laboratory accreditation program designed to improve performance are obvious. ASCLD/LAB has no powers to regulate or inspect a crime lab or to stop a lab that has failed inspection from doing examinations in criminal justice cases.

Many U.S. crime labs have never even risked inspection and the possibility of failing, most notable among them the one that bills itself the premier forensic science laboratory in the world — the FBI lab in Washington.

Sadly, widespread incompetence is just one side of the problem. There is worse, much worse…

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.”
Albert Einstein

Did you know? FBI agents intervened in the Shirley McKie case — a former detective wrongly accused of leaving her fingerprint at a murder scene — to urge a cover-up amid fears it could scupper the trial of the Lockerbie bombers.

David Grieve, the senior fingerprint expert at Illinois State Police who helped clear Ms McKie in 1999, said FBI agents had asked him to keep silent before the Lockerbie trial began in the Hague in February 2000.

Mr Grieve said : “I was asked not to mention anything about the case and not to publicise it because we had to think about the higher goal, which was Lockerbie.”

Meanwhile, Allan Bayle, a fingerprint expert formerly of the Metropolitan Police, has said it was his “firm belief” the SCRO’s evidence was “far more likely to be fabrication rather than gross incompetence”.

And now, allow me go back to the Lockerbie Case. Let us discuss the so-called evidence of SEMTEX!

To be continued.

Forensic Science: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) 


Tainting Evidence — Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab

Lockerbie FBI team urged a cover-up on McKie — The Herald, Feb. 2006


FBI Forensic Science : Incompetence or Malice?

FBI Forensic Science : Incompetence or Malice? [UPDATE : US DOJ/OIG Report on the FBI Forensic Laboratory]

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