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FBI Issued Flawed Bombing Analysis, U.S. Probe Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Justice Department inspector general’s office has determined that the FBI crime laboratory made “scientifically unsound” conclusions in the Oklahoma City bombing case, finding that supervisors approved lab reports they “cannot support” and many analyses were “biased in favor of the prosecution.”

The still-secret draft report, obtained by The Times, also concludes that FBI lab officials may have erred about the size of the blast and the amount of explosives involved and may not know for certain that ammonium nitrate was used for the main charge that killed 168 people and injured more than 850 others.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 23, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
FBI lab report--A graphic in Saturday’s editions incorrectly reported the source of a draft report on problems in the FBI crime lab. The source was the Justice Department inspector general’s office.

The draft report shows that FBI examiners could not identify the triggering device for the truck bomb or how it was detonated on April 19, 1995, and it warns that a poorly maintained lab environment could have led to contamination of critical pieces of evidence, such as debris found on the clothing of defendant Timothy J. McVeigh.

If entered into evidence at McVeigh’s trial, scheduled to begin March 31, the draft report could provide a measure of doubt about whether bomb residue evidence was properly handled and professionally examined by experts at the Washington lab. Forensic evidence is an important element of the government’s largely circumstantial case against McVeigh and co-defendant Terry L. Nichols.

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The FBI has refused to comment until the report is in its final form, which is expected next month. That final report is likely to be adjusted to reflect FBI responses to the conclusions in the draft.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has told Congress, however, that the bureau does not believe the final report will compromise any pending cases.

Aside from its impact on the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the report raises serious questions about the integrity of FBI supervisors, particularly James T. Thurman, who as chief of the lab’s Explosives Unit (EU) played a key role in overseeing the examination of forensic evidence.

“We are deeply troubled that in a case of this importance and magnitude, the EU chief did not take greater care in making his supervisory review,” the report says.

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The Justice investigation began after complaints were made by Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI chemist and the principal whistle blower on problems at the lab. While confirming many accusations made by Whitehurst and others, the report also knocks down a number of Whitehurst’s charges. “We conclude that Whitehurst’s numerous other contentions lack merit,” the report states.

That determination could endanger a crucial part of McVeigh’s defense strategy, particularly since his attorneys have been relying heavily on Whitehurst’s allegations and may call him to the stand as a witness for McVeigh. The report also could lead to a bitter legal fight over its admissibility at the trial.

The draft is so tightly held--and so potentially important to the case--that U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch took the unusual step last month of signing a written order strictly prohibiting either side from discussing the report or providing it to others.

He also ruled that the lawyers were not to use the draft version of the report in pretrial hearings or during the McVeigh trial “in any form or for any purpose whatsoever.”

Because of the admonition, attorneys on both sides have refused to comment on the crime lab investigation. However, prosecutors have advised the judge that they expect some of their lab findings to withstand defense challenges in court.

The inspector general’s office began its investigation in 1996 after Whitehurst prevailed in insisting that an outside review panel should study whether the laboratory was living up to its once-vaunted reputation as the premier scientific examination arena in the world.

The investigation has triggered a firestorm in Washington. Senior officials at Justice have suggested that as many as 50 criminal cases around the country might be affected by the inspector general’s findings. And several Republican congressmen have launched sharp attacks at Freeh over his management.

The FBI has announced a series of improvements at the facility, including plans to relocate the lab from FBI headquarters in downtown Washington to the bureau’s training academy in Quantico, Va. The bureau also revealed, after receiving the Jan. 21 draft report, that Whitehurst and three other lab officials are being transferred out of the facility.

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The other three are Thurman, David Williams, a supervisory agent in the explosives unit, and Roger Martz, chief of the chemistry unit--all of whom had important roles in examining Oklahoma City evidence.

Williams came under some of the harshest criticism by the inspector general. The draft report says that his analyses “are scientifically unsound, are not explained in the body of the report and are biased in favor of the prosecution.”

The inspector general singled out Williams’ Sept. 25, 1995, report on his lab tests of Oklahoma City evidence.

“We are deeply troubled by Williams’ report, which contains several serious flaws,” the report says. “These errors are all tilted in favor of the prosecution’s theory of the case. We conclude that Williams failed to present an objective, unbiased, competent report.”

Those “flaws” and “errors” include:

* Williams’ opinion of the velocity of detonation was “unjustifiable” and “incomplete.”

Williams determined that the bomb was made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) and that it exploded at 13,000 feet per second, a figure that the draft report notes “supported the prosecution’s theory of the case that the defendants caused the Oklahoma City bombing by detonating an ANFO explosive.”

But Williams, under questioning by inspector general investigators, acknowledged that he should not have been so precise and should have said that the bomb had a range of from 8,000 to 15,000 feet per second.

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* His categorical identification of the main charge of the explosion as ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was, in itself, “inappropriate.”

The report says that FBI agents found a receipt for the purchase of ammonium nitrate at the Herington, Kan., home of Nichols, the second defendant in the bombing, who is to stand trial after McVeigh.

Because of that discovery, the report says, Williams slanted his conclusion to match that evidence. Williams’ original identification of the type of explosive used “is not based on scientific or technical grounds and appears to tailor the opinion to evidence associated with the defendants,” the report says.

“He acknowledged that he reached this conclusion, in part, because Terry Nichols . . . purchased ammonium nitrate and diesel oil prior to the bombing,” the report says.

“Without the evidence of these purchases, Williams admitted he would have been unable to conclude that ANFO was used.”

Later, under questioning by the inspector general’s office, Williams conceded that the main charge could have been dynamite instead of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

“It could have been dynamite,” Williams told the inspector general’s office. “I’m suggesting that there could have been other things.”

* His estimate of the weight of the main charge of the bomb was “too specific and based in part on improper grounds.”

Williams concluded that approximately 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate was used--a figure that conforms with the amount listed in the purchase receipts found by FBI agents.

Williams later tried to clarify himself and his lab findings in an interview with the inspector general’s office.

“Your conclusion as to 4,000 pounds, is that based on anything that was recovered in the searches or receipts or what they [Nichols or McVeigh] ordered?” the inspector general’s investigators asked.

“Yes it is. . . ,” Williams replied. But, he added, “My estimate of 4,000 pounds is not solely based on the receipts.” He said that he also considered the size of the bomb crater and the damage to the Murrah building and surrounding structures.

Nevertheless, the inspector general determined that Williams appeared to be leaning toward the prosecution position.

“We are troubled that Williams’ opinion as to weight may have been tailored to conform to the evidence associated with the defendants,” the report says.

* His categorical identification of the bomb’s trigger mechanism was “improper.”

Williams’ analysis found that it was either a Primadet Delay system or a sensitized detonating cord. Primadet systems, according to the draft report, “were found at defendant Nichols’ house and an accomplice’s house.” The report did not identify the accomplice.

But no evidence of a Primadet system or a sensitized detonating cord was found at the blast scene. And in later interviews with the inspector general, Williams conceded that, “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no” about the matter.

* Williams’ was “unjustifiably categorical” in his conclusion about the large barrels believed used to contain the explosive ingredients in the Ryder rental truck thought to have transported the bomb.

He based that finding on “white, blue and black plastic fragments” found at the blast site. He was also aware that agents found 50-gallon white and blue barrels at Nichols’ house. He then extrapolated that the fragments were “similar to” the barrels.

But the inspector general faulted that finding, saying that the most Williams should have said is that the fragments were “consistent with” barrels found at Nichols’ residence.

* His conclusions that the bomb ignition system included a nonelectric detonator, a burning fuse and a time delay were “scientifically insupportable.”

Neither a nonelectric detonator nor a fuse was found at the blast site. But prosecutors did assemble evidence that the defendants broke into a Marion, Kan., quarry where nonelectric detonators were taken, the draft report says. And fuses similar to those referred to by William “were found at locations associated with the defendants.”

Williams also based his theory about a timed delay on a videotape taken near the blast site that shows a Ryder truck two minutes and 15 seconds before the blast, the report says.

“Based on the tape,” according to the draft report, “Williams posited that a 3-foot burning fuse was used, which he said would correlate with two minutes, 15 seconds.”

He said that he came up with a 3-foot fuse “based on his assumption that the perpetrator had a military background.”

Both McVeigh and Nichols are Army veterans who served together and later became gun enthusiasts, often buying and selling weapons, ammo and related materials.

But the draft report says of Williams scientific findings: “There is nothing . . . suggesting that the evidence indicates that the blast was perpetrated by someone with a military background.”

Regarding Martz, chief of the lab’s chemistry unit, the inspector general found different shortcomings.

The report says that he failed to get the approval of supervisor Steven Burmeister before deciding not to perform a microscopic examination of potential evidence on McVeigh’s clothing and knife. He also failed to detail all of his examinations in his lab notes.

Regarding Thurman, the inspector general is critical of his supervisory role as chief of the lab’s explosives unit. He was faulted for simply approving Williams’ analyses after a verbal presentation instead of conducting a more rigorously thorough supervisory review.

“Thurman’s principal failing was to approve [Williams’ findings] with unsupported conclusions,” the draft says.

The report also addressed the accuracy of the primary whistle-blower, Whitehurst, and sharply criticized him for raising concerns that could not be substantiated. That characterization follows earlier FBI findings that Whitehurst often relied on rumors, spread false innuendoes and “thinks no one has more credibility than himself.”

The draft report dismisses his allegations that dictated lab notes were incomplete or inaccurate, as well as his suggestion that a secondary explosion may have followed the main blast.

Also discounted was Whitehurst’s contention that signs of “pitting and cratering” on the Ryder truck’s rear door latch, found at the scene, suggested that the bomb actually exploded at a much higher velocity.

As it did with many other Whitehurst allegations, the inspector general’s report says, simply, about the door latch: “Whitehurst is incorrect.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Insupportable’

A sample of the tough language of the FBI inspector general’s draft report on the handling of evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing case:

. . . his estimate of the weight of the main charge was too specific and based in part on improper grounds; his conclusion as to the containers for the main charge was unjustifiably categorical; his categorical identification of the initiator for the booster was improper, his conclusions concerning a non-electric detonator, the fuse, and the time delay were scientifically insupportable; his conclusions were not supported by the contents of the report; and he included some AE dictation in a selective or confusing way. These errors were all tilted in favor of the prosecution’s theory of the case. We conclude that Williams failed to present an objective, unbiased, competent report.

****

IN THIS EXCERPT

The “his” in this excerpt refers to David Williams, a supervisory FBI agent in the lab’s explosives unit, who came under the brunt of the inspector general’s criticism.

Source: FBI draft report


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