Fbi Gets Taste Of Scandal

Inattention: Report On Problems At The Fbi's Crime Lab Has Shown That The Agency Sat On A Managerial Time Bomb.

April 20, 1997|By Jeff Stein

It's not over for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not by a long shot. The FBI's handling of problems in its crime lab, detailed in a withering report by the Justice Department last week, amounts to an FBI "Tailhook," the aviator drinking party that ballooned into a major scandal, sunk the Navy's top officers and forever changed the culture of America's oldest and most elite military service.

As in Tailhook, the FBI bomb lab's problems began when it ignored the complaints of one of its own, an FBI scientist. As with the Navy, FBI lab management has already been decimated and the reputation of the vaunted unit irrevocably tarnished. The scandal's next victim is likely to be the embattled director, Louis J. Freeh, who responded sluggishly to a managerial timebomb that had been ticking for years only four floors below his office .

But that's only the beginning. The verdicts in hundreds, if not thousands, of federal and local trials are at stake, including some of this century's biggest cases: the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City trial that recently started and the Unabomber case. The upshot could be a real-life Batman's Gotham, with the thugs turned free because of FBI malfeasance.

"The prevailing culture of the lab - examiners not properly performing or documenting tests, preparing inaccurate reports, testifying about matters beyond their expertise and much more - suggests that thousands of prosecutions may have been tainted," said Judy Clarke, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Clarke, a federal public defender in Spokane, Wash., has been assigned to represent the suspect in the Unabomber case, Theodore J. Kaczynski.

Likewise, the World Trade Center defense team is nearly salivating at the prospects of successfully appealing last year's conviction, according to the New York Times - an appeal no doubt given impetus by the Justice Department's finding that FBI lab agent David Williams "tailored" his testimony against the defendants and "based some of his conclusions not on valid scientific analysis, but on speculation." Other lab officials' handling of the trade center bombing evidence was harshly criticized in the report.

Williams also worked on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, in which he "tilted" his reports to incriminate defendants, the Justice Department said. Stephen Jones, the lawyer for suspect Timothy J. McVeigh, has vowed to impeach the conduct of Williams and other FBI lab employees who may have contaminated evidence in the case, raising the prospect of the colorful Oklahoma attorney exhorting the jury "to acquit, if the reports don't fit."

The Justice Department report also confirmed a Perspective piece I wrote for The Sun in April 1996: that FBI lab data in the Unabomber case was, at least back then, a mess. In 13 attacks attributed to the Unabomber between 1978 and mid-1995, the data handled by the lab was "either not in the files or poor," an internal review had found, raising the prospect of a fatally flawed case even before a suspect was arrested.

The lead prosecutor in the case said Wednesday that he wouldn't rely on any of the Unabom evidence handled by Terry Rudolph, a now-retired FBI supervisor. Criticisms of Rudolph by Frederic Whitehurst, a lab agent turned whistle-blower, go as far back as 1986.

An intense, mustachioed Vietnam combat veteran who holds a doctorate in chemistry from Duke University, White- [See FBI, Page 8f] hurst also had been inflamed by Rudolph's alleged boasts that "all the examiners in the laboratory had perjured themselves and he himself had," according to a complaint Whitehurst lodged with the FBI inspector general. Whitehurst set out to re-examine every piece of work Rudolph had done for the lab, and found numerous errors.

But the FBI dug in its heels. That bullheaded response was the start of a pattern that would continue for nearly a decade, until Whitehurst surfaced in the last hectic days of the O. J. Simpson criminal trial, subpoenaed by the defense to challenge the FBI's blood analysis.

Judge Lance A. Ito blocked that testimony, but outside the courthouse, the burly agent vented his complaints about FBI lab work in the World Trade Center and other matters, setting off a media firestorm. At that point, Attorney General Janet Reno stepped in and assembled a panel to examine Whitehurst's charges - something that should have been done years earlier. But back in the 1980s, there wasn't any heat on the lab - at least not the kind generated by the Simpson trial. Whitehurst's complaints were bottled up inside the building, from as far back as 1989, when he successfully raised complaints about the lab's handling of evidence in the trial of a San Francisco man accused of conspiring to assassinate Philippines President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

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