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Bad FBI Science

A forensic whistleblower on the latest scandal.

Dr. Frederic Whitehurst knows a thing or two about FBI lab scandals. As a “supervisory special agent” and noted forensic scientist, he began complaining to his federal supervisors more than 25 years ago about shoddy policies and practices within the vaunted crime lab. Then, in the mid-1990s, he went public with his concerns, officially becoming a “whistleblower” by highlighting flawed forensics and testimony relating to (among other things) the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. For this he was scorned by many of his colleagues and retaliated against at work, but ultimately vindicated by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which in 1997 issued a report endorsing some of Whitehurst’s claims. He left the FBI following a settlement with the government in 1998 and now serves as a co-chair of the National Whistleblowers Center.

We caught up with Dr. Whitehurst this week in the wake of the latest allegations of scientific misfeasance at the FBI crime lab. We now know that nearly every FBI scientist at the lab before the year 2000 — 26 out of 28 — overstated his or her “expert” conclusions about matches from analyses of hair samples collected from crime scenes and/or suspects. Hundreds of cases, at least, have been tainted, including at least one dozen cases that resulted in a sentence of death.

What does this latest forensic scandal tell about the trustworthiness of FBI analysis in all those criminal cases?

It tells us that all of them were doing the same thing. When I was at the FBI, we had people with English degrees, history degrees, doing complex chemical analysis. Our chief chemist didn’t have an undergraduate degree in chemistry. They were not scientists. They weren’t out to hurt anyone. They believed in their work. They believed what they were saying when they said it. Those people gave misleading testimony in courts of law but they believed it, and they taught it to thousands of state hair examiners all over the U.S.

But you don’t need Fred Whitehurst telling you this. The National Academies of Science already has told us that. They’ve already told us that it’s all crap. The FBI is still putting out invalidated work product, and I do not believe the FBI is going to fix this. As soon as this week’s news is last week’s news, they are going to stop the reform. What was revealed this week was known since 1998. They knew there were issues, and they did nothing about it.

Why don't more FBI scientists blow the whistle on their colleagues who are undertaking questionable lab work?

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Doesn't make sense. Once you embarrass the FBI, you lose your job, your reputation, your kids can't look forward to college, your mortgage defaults, you get a job working as a correctional officer or serving coffee, no one really seems to care. You have to be insane to tell the truth at the FBI, absolutely insane. The recent Senate hearing concerning whistleblowing at the FBI spells it out very clearly. FBI managers will destroy anyone who does not give them the answers they demand.

What are some of the perverse incentives built into the system?

FBI scientists can look forward to comfortable retirements until they die. Who wants to give up all of that? If you disagree with practices at the FBI you will be put first on administrative leave, probably sent for psychiatric evaluation (really), fight alone without any assistance from any citizens you are trying to protect for years and years and years, and see the folks who remained quiet gradually move on to better jobs and great retirement paychecks.

What specific steps need to be taken to fix the problems?

We have an adversarial justice system that encourages gamesmanship, ambush, secrecy, cheating. Lab analysts go along with the practices in our adversarial justice system. Because they don't have to compete with real scientists, they don't have to question their own work product. And so they are mentally lazy. We need to establish a National Defense Forensic Institute to do what science does, try to prove the null hypothesis. Let the FBI and states and local law enforcement have their own labs. Let them slant their results. And then let defense counsel be assisted by real scientists from the Defense Forensic Institute, an organization of scientists who can publish openly, criticize openly, do research openly with the sole end of questioning government forensic lab science.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.