Africa Bombings Provide Big Test for FBI
By Michael Grunwald
Last year, the Justice Department's inspector general detailed evidence of serious misconduct within the explosives unit, alleging a pattern of flawed science, sloppy work, lax oversight and prosecutorial bias in high-profile bombing cases, such as those involving Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center and the Unabomber. But the 15-member unit now has a new leader, a new structure, a new staff, even a new name: the Materials and Devices Unit.
In Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it has a chance to earn a new reputation. How the unit gleans evidence from badly contaminated crime scenes, while dealing with the enormous pressure to find infinitesimal clues, may determine whether the bombers and their sponsors are identified and how the United States responds to the terrorist assaults.
"We've worked extremely hard to get that unit staffed with experienced, competent people," said Donald Kerr, director of the FBI's laboratory division. "I think you'll see that they've taken hold out there."
Even the FBI laboratory's toughest critics agree that it has improved since Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich issued his report criticizing its explosives-related work. In a follow-up report in April, Bromwich praised the FBI for implementing most of his recommendations. The managers and other bomb experts accused of wrongdoing no longer work in the lab. There has been an overall shift from FBI agents to civilian scientists in the lab, which now includes 75 agents among its 700-plus employees. The new chief of the explosives unit, Thomas Jourdan, has a science doctorate, and the staff now includes material scientists as well as bomb technicians.
In this esoteric field, there have always been cultural and intellectual tensions between the bookishness of lab knowledge and the bravado of field experience, between objective material science and the more subjective art of bomb analysis. Scientists use microscopes to study residues and fragments; bomb experts use observation, three-dimensional models and simulations to reconstruct massive explosions.
Both hard data and educated guesswork are necessary in every bombing investigation, but Jourdan's selection as unit chief may reflect the FBI's recent tilt back toward hard science. He had not received any specific explosives training until he took a Navy ordnance course late last year.
But not all the critics are convinced that the unit's new name and new emphasis represent a new attitude. The FBI refused to move its chemists and residue analysts into the explosives unit, and Kerr acknowledged that non-scientists are still more prevalent in the unit than in any other section of the lab. Neither Tom Mohnal, who is in charge of the group in Nairobi, nor Leo West, who is leading the Dar es Salaam team, has a scientific background, Kerr said.
Mohnal was criticized in the inspector general's original 517-page report for some of his actions while directing the Unabom investigation, although he was not accused of misconduct. The report concluded that there was no proof that Mohnal had covered up an audit by a subordinate detailing serious problems with the case's lab work. But it did call Mohnal's claim that he had not known about the audit for more than a year, even though he had ordered it, "astonishing." And it described as "inadequate" a memorandum that Mohnal eventually wrote playing down the problems uncovered in the audit.
Mohnal won a Justice Department award for his work on the Unabom case, but prosecutors later said they would not have let FBI examiners testify if the case had gone to trial. In his report, Bromwich found that members of the unit had provided inaccurate or misleading testimony in the Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombing trials. The report concluded that the unit should no longer manage crime scenes, a recommendation the FBI has reluctantly agreed to adopt.
"We still have very serious concerns about that unit," said David Colapinto, an attorney for Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI chemist whose allegations prompted the inspector general's 18-month investigation. "These embassy cases will be an interesting test."
They will also be a daunting challenge. In Nairobi, for example, investigators did not take control of the crime scene until a week after the bombing, waiting for volunteers to finish hunting through the rubble for the injured and the dead. The security perimeter consisted mostly of a black curtain, a poor deterrent for mourners, curious bystanders, reporters, photographers and even a few looters.
Contamination poses problems for the 10 members of the unit working in Africa. As they rake through the embassy debris, investigators are hoping to find a case-breaker like the tiny computer chip fragment that helped them trace the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland back to a pair of Libyan terrorists. They are also trying to determine the force of the explosives by studying how far the blasts showered debris, and how they melted cars, bent back signs, shattered glass and incinerated trees.
The unit's investigation will ultimately focus on swabs of residue invisible to the naked eye, but every intrusion into the crime scene by an outsider has reduced the supply of pristine traces. It has also increased the likelihood of misleading traces, from, say, the boots of someone who once worked with dynamite. Investigators celebrated when they found a few traces of explosive residue in the wreckage of TWA Flight 800, but later ruled the crash to be accidental.
Jourdan said his team has carefully collected swabs from areas unlikely to be contaminated -- for example, on shards of window glass embedded in walls high above human height -- and is sending samples back to Washington for analysis this weekend. With mass spectrometers and other equipment, the lab could identify the explosives within a few days, Jourdan said.
"We've got a lot of new people, and new resources, too," said Jourdan, who worked on Pan Am 103, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and a host of similar cases. "The unit's in great shape."
To minimize contamination, the lab has established separate receiving docks in Washington for evidence from Nairobi and Dar es Salaam: one on the first floor of the FBI's underground garage, one on the third floor. It will then test the samples in different areas of the lab because it does not want vapors from one site to interact with vapors from the other. Even in his benign follow-up report, Bromwich said he was still concerned about contamination.
"I've been told that the lab is in much better shape than it was, but I don't know that for a fact," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), an outspoken critic of the lab. "Right now, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I guess we'll see what happens."
But while the FBI has accepted most of the Bromwich report's recommendations, it has been more reluctant to embrace its findings. FBI officials successfully persuaded the Justice Department to forgo serious disciplinary action against the agents criticized in the report. Weldon Kennedy, the agency's former deputy director, still describes the report as "de minimus -- a whole lot about a whole little." The explosives unit may be helped by the tighter protocols demanded by the report, he said, but it may be hurt by the loss of some of its best analysts.
"It's fine to have scientists who sit in their ivory towers, but you also need agents with hands-on, investigative experience," said Kennedy, now an executive at a security firm. "You need people who understand bombs, and I'm not sure it matters whether they've got a PhD."
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