[On this date in 1995 the FBI crime laboratory was the subject of a highly critical television programme broadcast on the ABC network. It followed disclosures by one of the laboratory’s scientists, Dr Frederic Whitehurst, about the methods adopted by some of his colleagues, including Tom Thurman. The scandal later became the subject of a book, Tainting Evidence, by John Kelly and Phillip Wearne. The relevance of this to the Lockerbie case becomes apparent in this extract from a 2008 article by Dr Ludwig de Braeckeleer:]
Thomas Thurman worked for the FBI forensics laboratory in the late 80s and most of the 90s. Thurman has been publicly credited for identifying a tiny fragment as part of a MST-13 timer produced by the Swiss company Mebo.
“When that identification was made, of the timer, I knew that we had it,” Thurman told ABC in 1991. “Absolute, positively euphoria! I was on cloud nine.”
Again, his record is far from pristine. The US attorney general [RB: through the Department of Justice’s Inspector General] has accused him of having altered lab reports in a way that rendered subsequent prosecutions all but impossible. He has been transferred out the FBI forensic laboratory. Thurman has since left the FBI and joined the faculty at the School of Criminal Justice, Eastern Kentucky University.
The story sheds some light on his formation. The [Inspector General’s] report says “Williams and Thurman merit special censure for their work. It recommends that Thurman, who has a degree in political science, be reassigned outside the lab and that only scientists work in its explosives section.”
“For what it’s worth the best information on Lockerbie came long after Zeist, when the investigation was closed. I’ve always been curious about this case and never stopped looking into it, until the day I left the CIA in December 1997,” Robert Baer told me.
“The appeals commission posed the question to me about someone planting or manipulating evidence only to cover all the bases. I told them I did not think there was an organized attempt to misdirect the investigation, although I was aware that once it was decided to go after Libya, leads on Iran and the PFLP-GC were dismissed. Often in many investigations of this sort, the best intelligence comes out long after the event,” Baer added.
“I’m fascinated to know precisely why the Scots referred the case back to the court, although they did tell me the FBI and Scotland Yard have manipulated the evidence for the prosecution,” Baer told me.
Forensic analysis of the circuit board fragment allowed the investigators to identify its origin. The timer, known as MST-13, is fabricated by a Swiss Company named MeBo, which stands for Meister and Bollier.
The company has indeed sold about 20 MST-13 timers to the Libyan military (machine-made nine-ply green boards), as well as a few units (hand-made eight-ply brown boards) to a Research Institute in Bernau, known to act as a front to the Stasi, the former East German secret police. (...)
The CIA’s Vincent Cannistraro is on the record stating that no one has ever questioned the Thurman credentials. Allow me.
“He’s very aggressive, but I think he made some mistakes that needed to be brought to the attention of FBI management,” says Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI chemist who filed the complaints that led to the inspector general’s report.
“We’re not necessarily going to get the truth out of what we’re doing here,” concluded Whitehurst who now works as an attorney at law and forensic consultant.
Dr Whitehurst has authored something like 257 memos to the FBI and Justice Department with various complaints of incompetence, “fabrication of evidence” and perjury of various examiners in the FBI Laboratory (primarily Explosives Unit examiners).
“What I had to say about Tom Thurman and the computer chip was reported to the US attorney general’s inspector general during the investigation of wrongdoing in the FBI lab in the 1990s. I acquired all that information and the inspector general’s report from a law suit under the Freedom of Information Act and therefore the information provided under that FOIA request is in the public sector,” Whitehurst told me.
“I reported to my superiors up to and including the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US attorney general, members of the US Congress and US Senate as well as the Office of the President of the United States that FBI Supervisory Special Agent Thomas Thurman altered my reports for five years without my authorization or knowledge. This is public information. Thurman holds an undergraduate degree in political science and I hold a PhD in chemistry.”
“Thurman was not recognized by the FBI or anyone else as having expertise in complex chemical analysis and I was. When confronted with this information Thurman did not deny it but argued that my reports could and/or would hurt prosecutors’ cases. I was very concerned about the fact that wrong information in the final reports could hurt individuals and deny citizens of this country right to a fair trial. When I raised my concerns with my managers at the FBI laboratory, all except for one of them reminded me that Thurman was the “hero” behind determining the perpetrators of the Pan Am 103 disaster.”
“I understood from that that the FBI would not expose these issues for fear that the investigation into the Pan Am 103 bombing would be seen as possibly flawed and this would open the FBI up to criticism and outside review.”
No government body has found that Mr. Thurman has done anything illegal. However he was relieved from his post in the FBI’s Explosives Unit and placed in charge of the FBI’s Bomb Data Center.
“Did Mr Thurman find the integrated circuit chip about which you have referred? After leaving the FBI, I was interviewed by Scottish defense attorneys for one of the individuals accused of bombing Pan Am 103. At that interview were two of my attorneys, two FBI attorneys and two Scottish attorneys and me. I was asked what I knew about the circuit chip. I can say that I was not interviewed because I agreed with the official version of the discovery of that integrated circuit chip,” Whitehurst wrote to me. (...)
In the world of Forensic Sciences, former FBI [special agent] William Tobin is a legend. To name but a few of his achievements, Tobin demonstrated, along with his NTSB colleagues, that TWA 800 had been destroyed by mechanical failure at the time when virtually the rest of the world strongly believed a terror act. Both the NTSB and the CIA subsequently presented compelling evidence demonstrating the scientific validity of Tobin’s conclusion.
After retiring, Tobin demonstrated that the Lead content bullet identification technique, used by the FBI for more than four decades, was flawed. Tobin was not allowed to work on this matter while at the FBI.
Tobin knows a few things about superhero Thomas Thurman. Tobin told me that, in his opinion, Thurman and other Explosives Unit examiners were prone to confirmation bias, an observer bias whereby an examiner is inclined to see what he is expected to see. Tobin’s opinion is based on “numerous interactions whereby Thurman and other examiners rendered conclusions supporting the prevailing investigative or prosecutorial theory but which were unsupported by scientific fact.
It was not uncommon to determine that items characterized as ‘chrome-plated’ were nickel-plated, ‘extrusions’ turned out to be drawn products, ‘castings’ turned out to be forgings, white residues characterized as explosive residue turned out to be corrosion products (generally Al2O3 or a non-stoichiometric form), bent nails claimed to be indicative of an explosion, and a truck axle was characterized as having fractured from an explosion (a conclusion rendered solely from an 8-1/2” x 11” photograph where the axle was a small fraction of the field of view and the fracture surface itself was not observable).
“I put no credence into any scientific or technical conclusions rendered by anyone without a suitable scientific background for that matter, until I can make an independent evaluation. Thurman was a history or political science major to my recollection,” Tobin added
“His habit, as with most Explosives Unit examiners with whom I interacted and based on numerous court transcript reviews and ‘bailout’ requests I received on several occasions (to ‘bail out’ an examiner who not only misrepresented an item of evidence but also was confronted with more accurate representations of the evidence in trial), was to seek someone else’s expertise and then present it as his own in a courtroom without attribution.”
“He would frequently come into my office, ask for a ‘quick’ assessment of something (but I would always indicate that my opinion was only a preliminary evaluation and that I would need to conduct proper scientific testing of the item(s)), then weeks later I would see the assessment in a formal FBI Laboratory report to the contributor (of the evidence) as his own ‘scientific’ conclusion,” Tobin remembers.
“I cannot imagine that he was acting alone. He was a mid-level manager without a great deal of authority and with severely limited credentials of which the FBI was fully aware,” Whitehurst answered when I asked him if he thought that Thurman had acted alone.
“The problem with having a scientific laboratory within an intelligence gathering organization is that scientists traditionally are seeking truth and at times their data is in direct contradiction to the wishes of a government that is not seeking truth but victory on battle fields.”
“The problem with the scientific data is that when one wishes to really determine what the government scientists or pseudo scientists could have known, one need only look at the data. So few citizens ever ask for or review that data. So few scientists wish to question the government that feeds them and gives security to their families.”
“Was Thurman ordered to do what he did? No one acts alone without orders in the FBI. We had clear goals which were clearly given to us in every document we received from anyone. If a police organization wished for us to provide them “proof” of guilt then they told us in many ways of their absolute belief that the perpetrators were those individuals they had already arrested. If the president of the United States tells the country in the national news that Dandeny Munoz Mosquera is one of the most fear assassins in the history of the world then every agent knows that he must provide information to support that statement. If leaders decide without concern for foundation of truth then most people will follow them,” Whitehurst said.
“Thurman did not act alone. The culture at the FBI was one of group think, don’t go against the flow, stay in line, ignore that data that does not fit the group think,” Whitehurst added.
His former colleague agrees. “I’ve seen so often where an individual who was at one time an independent thinker and had good powers of reasoning acquires the ‘us vs them,’ circle-the-wagons, public-relations at all costs mentality at the FBI,” Tobin says.
“As much as I loved the institution, I have never seen a worse case of spin-doctoring of any image-tarnishing facts or developments as I had at the FBI. Never! It seemed the guiding principle was ‘image before reality’ or ‘image before all else’ (including fact). Whatever you do, ‘don’t embarrass the Bureau’ and ‘the Bureau can do no wrong.’”