Skirting questions about the agency's handling of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex., FBI Director Louis J. Freeh officially broke ground this week on a new crime analysis laboratory at the agency's training academy in Quantico, a facility that FBI officials say will allow them to expand their capabilities and advance new technologies.

Freeh, who declined to comment on the agency's use of incendiary tear gas canisters at Waco six years ago, joined FBI officials in ushering in the new laboratory at a ceremony Wednesday morning, just feet from the rumbling bulldozers that are making way for the $130 million facility.

The FBI hopes to occupy the multibuilding complex by early 2002, when officials will phase laboratory functions out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington and move them to the new site, which is in the center of the Quantico Marine Corps Base.

The groundbreaking marked the beginning of the final phase of the project, which Freeh has helped orchestrate over the past three years. Congress appropriated the funds for the project in 1996, as the FBI was taking heat from critics who speculated about internal problems with the handling of evidence.

On Wednesday, the complex's director said the new high-tech facility will expand the forensic lab's working environment by more than 80 percent and will provide more space for technicians who are "stuck in nooks and crannies" at the agency's downtown office building. The new 463,000-square-foot facility will include a multilevel parking garage, which already has been completed.

FBI Assistant Director Donald M. Kerr, who oversees the lab operations, said the facility will house new equipment that could not have been envisioned when the lab moved into the Hoover building in 1975. Kerr said the complex will serve as the hub of the FBI's DNA analysis unit and its many forensic scientists.

The FBI's lab also works in partnership with local, state, national and international jurisdictions. The new facility likely will house dozens of visiting officials for both investigation and training purposes.

"The fact is that we'll be able to do things in the new laboratory that we are not able to do today," Kerr said. "It is a marvelous thing to think ahead to what it will mean to occupy a world-class lab space with a world-class division doing things no one else in the world can do."

The FBI laboratory, established in 1932, is in charge of providing forensic services and technical advancements for law enforcement agencies across the country. Part of the agency's new venture includes a larger emphasis on research and development.

FBI lab employees provide examinations of physical evidence, analytical reports, expert testimony, support for investigations and a host of training seminars for law enforcement personnel, and they conducted 583,366 forensic examinations and 1.1 million latent fingerprint comparisons last year alone.

Freeh described the significance of the training and lab operations as "profound for the FBI and for the country" and called his agency's crime lab "the finest . . . in the world."

"The work of the laboratory is symbolic of the FBI in terms of its professionalism, its determination to get to the truth," Freeh said. "It's our job and our mission to do it right, to get the facts. We're very, very proud of that."

Attorney General Janet Reno, who also is embroiled in the recent revelation that the FBI concealed information about its operation at Waco, was scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking but did not attend because of a trip to Panama City, Freeh said. After symbolically shoveling dirt near the project, Freeh avoided the throng of news media and went to a secure building without making any additional comments.

CAPTION: The FBI hopes to occupy the multibuilding complex by early 2002 and phase laboratory functions out of Washington.

CAPTION: Director Louis J. Freeh, at the groundbreaking of the $130 million complex in Quantico, called the FBI's crime lab "the finest . . . in the world."

CAPTION: An artist's drawing of the Quantico lab. The 463,000-square-foot complex will expand the crime lab's working environment by more than 80 percent.