The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service - October 2007, Page 4
October 2007 - Volume 9 - Number 4
The FBI Laboratory: 75 Years of Forensic Science Service
Introduction | Kidnappings | Counterintelligence Cases | Bombing/Terrorism Investigations | Research and Development | Fingerprints | More than Casework | Quality Matters | FBI Laboratory Personnel | A Foundation for the Future | Conclusion | Notes | Acknowledgments | References
At the Laboratory’s inception, most employees were special agents. For many years, it was believed that only a special agent had the right combination of knowledge and investigative expertise to solve cases and testify in matters for the FBI Laboratory (Whitehead 1956). Today, however, most of the approximately 500 employees assigned to the FBI Laboratory are professional support personnel. Most have college degrees, and many have advanced degrees. FBI Laboratory forensic examiners follow a rigorous certification process that involves one to two years of training and testing. Until they become certified, forensic examiners cannot perform analyses and present their findings in court.
Laboratory scientists are recognized experts in their fields. In addition to working cases, they train other forensic science and law enforcement personnel, facilitate and attend conferences and symposia, and publish their research in peer-reviewed journals.
Because they are not subject to the same transfer policies and mandatory retirement as special agents, the Laboratory’s professional support employees spend years developing their expertise in their chosen fields of study. At the same time, the broad range of disciplines under the Laboratory umbrella—including quality assurance, training, evidence control, forensic science analysis and research, and management—offers personnel the opportunity to work in a variety of challenging positions.
For more than 70 years of its existence, the FBI Laboratory was located in downtown Washington, D.C., sharing a building with other FBI Headquarters divisions. Clearly, for quality and safety reasons, the Laboratory needed its own dedicated space. The process began in the mid-1990s, when the FBI received approval and funding from Congress to build a new Laboratory building in Quantico, Virginia (Federal Bureau of Investigation April 15, 1997). In 1998, the building plans were finalized (Federal Bureau of Investigation January 26, 1998), and on September 1, 1999, a groundbreaking ceremony was held onsite, with then-Director Louis Freeh, then-Laboratory Director Donald Kerr, and other dignitaries performing the honors (FBI Laboratory 2000).
Beginning in January 2003 and culminating in a dedication ceremony on April 25, 2003, the Laboratory moved into its new 500,000-square-foot facility. The massive granite stone near the entrance reminds employees and visitors alike that the new Laboratory is dedicated to crime victims and their families.
The building features specialized laboratory areas separate from offices and public access, as well as a 900-space parking garage and a separate central utilities plant. Strict access requirements ensure that only authorized individuals gain entry to the building and evidence-handling and examination areas. Laboratory examiners must pass through specially designed biovestibules, which serve as airlocks between laboratory and office space, to change into and out of laboratory apparel. These measures prevent evidence from becoming contaminated and keep personnel from being exposed to hazardous materials and pathogens (FBI Laboratory 2004).
The Laboratory continues to evolve. Over the years, some units—such as the Language Services Unit; the Polygraph Unit; the Computer Analysis Response Team; and the Forensic Audio, Video, and Image Analysis Unit—have been transferred to other FBI divisions to better serve their core constituents. At the same time, the Laboratory has created new entities to better achieve its mission. The Chemical-Biological Sciences Unit develops analytical plans and partners with other laboratories to conduct and direct the forensic examination of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials. The IT (Information Technology) Coordination Group is helping the Laboratory improve its business processes using automation. The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center is a vital component in the fight against terrorism. As the 21st century unfolds and crime patterns and priorities change, the Laboratory will change in response. But most important, the Laboratory will take proactive steps to ensure that it can address whatever the future holds.
Seventy-five years ago, two men with a vision of how science could help solve crimes started the FBI Laboratory. Despite having great insight, neither man probably envisioned how much the world would change and how the FBI and the Laboratory would change to meet those challenges. The FBI has transformed from solely a law enforcement agency to also an intelligence agency tasked with preventing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Instead of gangster John Dillinger, the FBI’s Most Wanted is Usama bin Laden, a terrorist leader. Laboratory personnel are increasingly called to examine evidence from explosive and incendiary devices.
Today’s criminals have the means and the motivation to cause widespread panic and destruction. The criminal justice, intelligence, and forensic science communities need to keep pace by using the most advanced tools and techniques available. In 1961, when the Justice Department asked Congress to legalize state and federal wiretaps, Assistant Attorney General Herbert J. Miller said, “Law enforcement officials should be as free as criminals to use modern scientific methods” (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2006). Clearly, Miller recognized the value of science and technology in fighting criminals, who sometimes seem to be one step ahead of law enforcement.
Yet, in the United States, more than half of all state and local law enforcement agencies employ fewer than 10 officers (Reaves 2007). They often do not have the resources to fulfill the obligations imposed on them by a society rife with crime. Meanwhile, crime has become increasingly global, and not many agencies can send their personnel halfway around the world to conduct investigations. Fortunately, the federal government does have the means and, moreover, the mission to help state and local agencies protect the residents of their jurisdictions.
As part of the federal government, the FBI and the FBI Laboratory sometimes face budgetary constraints. The desire to provide cost-free forensic services to every law enforcement agency that requests them and the resources to do so are not always compatible. The FBI Laboratory must balance the needs of its constituents with its own resources.
Regardless of the circumstances, the FBI Laboratory will continue to serve the public by providing forensic services and support to its law enforcement, intelligence community, and forensic science partners. Indeed, FBI personnel take the title “public servant” very seriously. Partnerships, teamwork, dedication, quality: these common threads weave through the fabric of the FBI Laboratory and mean the difference between success and failure.
The FBI Laboratory had humble beginnings, examining fewer than 1000 pieces of evidence in its first year. Today, Laboratory examinations total approximately one million or more each year. Items of evidence may be as large as the fuselage from an aircraft or, thanks to scientific advances, as small as the cells of a person’s skin. Firearms and handwriting analysis once dominated the Laboratory’s caseload. Today, Laboratory casework covers a multitude of disciplines, including trace evidence, chemistry, latent prints, DNA, and explosives. One special agent started the Laboratory in one room with a borrowed microscope and a few other pieces of equipment. Today, approximately 500 Laboratory employees work in a world-class facility and use the most advanced tools, techniques, and technology available. J. Edgar Hoover’s vision of creating the foremost crime laboratory and applying scientific principles to solving cases has truly come to pass.
1. The Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI has begun an oral history project. Transcripts from interviews with former FBI agents are available on the organization’s website at and will eventually be posted to the Web site of the National Law Enforcement Museum at http://www.nleomf.org/museum/. So far, six transcripts are available. The agents interviewed were all at one time assigned to the FBI’s Special Intelligence Service, working undercover in Central and South America during World War II to report on Axis intelligence activities (Federal Bureau of Investigation June 24, 2005).
2. Unless otherwise noted, the details of the FBI Laboratory’s efforts during the Robert Hanssen investigation all came from the same source (FBI Laboratory 2002).
3. Unless otherwise noted, the details of the FBI Laboratory’s efforts following the September 11 terrorist attacks all came from the same source (FBI Laboratory 2002).
4. Although often informally referred to as the Latent Print Unit(s), the Latent Print Operations Unit and the Latent Print Support Unit divide responsibilities for latent print examinations and other related functions in the Laboratory. The Latent Print Section no longer exists.
5. The Laboratory report is somewhat illegible here. It appears to say “protecting a word.” This information was obtained from Freedom of Information Act postings on the FBI’s Internet website (see ). A subsequent letter to the FBI in May 1973 (author’s name redacted) states that the FBI reports the writing to say “Henry [space] 465 Broadway. J. [space] Wilkes.” The letter writer goes on to say that Dr. Mudd claimed that the boot read, “Henry Luz, Maker, 445 Broadway, J. Wilkes.” A document on file at the U.S. National Archives quotes Mudd similarly (as cited in Wikisource 2006). FBI Acting Director William Ruckelshaus responded to the letter writer, explaining that the inscription could not be discerned completely because of the deterioration and fading of the ink over the 83-year passage of time (Ruckelshaus 1973).
6. The Document Section previously comprised several units, including the Computer Analysis Response Team, the Cryptanalysis/Gambling Unit, the Polygraph Unit, the Special Photographic Unit, the Translation Unit, and the Questioned Documents Unit. Today, the Questioned Documents Unit is part of the Forensic Analysis Section and continues to examine such evidence as handwriting, typewriting, shoe prints, and tire treads. Most of the other units in the now-disbanded Document Section are assigned to other FBI Headquarters divisions (McHenry, personal communication, 2007).
7. The generic term for the pocket pistol named after Henry Deringer is “derringer.” When referring to the pistol used by John Wilkes Booth, it was spelled “Deringer,” after its maker.
8. The source for the information on the initiatives, only some of which are described in this section, is the April 15, 1997 press release. The updated information—for example, when the Laboratory became accredited or how many scientific working groups the Laboratory now sponsors—came from other sources, as noted, as well as the author’s personal knowledge.
This is publication number 07-10 of the Laboratory Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Names of commercial manufacturers are provided for identification only, and inclusion does not imply endorsement by the FBI. The interpretations, conclusions, and opinions presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the FBI or the FBI Laboratory.
The author thanks John Fox, the FBI historian, for his research assistance and his technical review of the article; Sam Baechtel and Bruce Budowle, who are institutions in the FBI Laboratory, not only for their comprehensive, knowledgeable reviews but also for their many years of service to the Laboratory; Marsha Karas, whose detailed review demonstrates what an asset she is to the Quality Assurance and Training Unit; Diane Hall, who digitized numerous historical images on a very short deadline; Don Sturgis, who provided photographs of the Laboratory Directors; and, finally, to the many Laboratory staff members who provided research assistance and whose dedicated service formed the foundation of this article.
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