Scientific Support to Terrorism Investigations

By Murch, Randall S. | Forensic Science Communications, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Scientific Support to Terrorism Investigations


Murch, Randall S., Forensic Science Communications


In recent years, events such as the bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, the World Trade Center in New York City, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Centennial Park in Atlanta, and two U.S. Embassies in East Africa have riveted increasing political, media, and public attention on the threat and impact of terrorism to our society and economy. We as Americans have learned that we are not invincible or untouchable. The release of the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway system by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 and the availability of knowledge and materials, coupled with discoveries of vast development infrastructures and stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons by such nations as Iraq, have revived and focused attention on the vulnerability of our society and what to do about the use of these tools as instruments of terror. Even cyberspace is actively being viewed as a potential conduit for and victim of terrorism.

Science and, increasingly, medicine and engineering, especially in situations involving chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD), necessarily play critical roles in issues of detection, identification, response, resolution, investigation, attribution, and prosecution of acts of terrorism. Terrorism is often executed by what I term the drop-and-run method. An improvised weapon--meant to cause death, damage, or injury or to gain attention--is covertly deployed by the perpetrator and unleashed when the responsible individual or group is separated by time and space from the event (and, those responsible hope, from both witnesses and the authorities). In such a likely scenario, a wide range of scientific disciplines, including forensic science, are critical in both the field and laboratory to help develop or corroborate the who, what, when, why, where, and how of the act of terrorism. Crisis and consequence processes for WMD events are heavily dependent upon the application of the proper science (and its aforementioned siblings, medicine and engineering) in the right manner and order. Because of the highly informative and probative, yet transient, nature of physical evidence associated with the site, methods, instruments, and victims of terrorism, thorough and exploitative forensic science must be applied as early as possible and extend throughout the prosecution or attribution phases.

Counterterrorism (CT) is a first priority investigative program of the FBI. The FBI Laboratory is an integral part of the FBI's corporate response to terrorism, both at home and abroad. Although we have responded to such events for many years, within the past three we have increased our capabilities to do so even more swiftly and effectively. Specific enhancements include:

* increased staff and equipment in those units within the Laboratory that respond to and support CT investigations;

* acquisition of portable and fly-away instrument packages to permit chemical (and eventually biological) analyses to be performed on site;

* establishment of the unique Hazardous Materials Response Unit (HMRU), which specifically responds to events involving the threatened or actual illicit use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear hazards;

* creation of five Rapid Deployment Teams, which are staffed with an array of Laboratory experts and one of which is on call at all times and deployable within a few hours;

* extensive liaison with the Departments of Energy, Defense, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and other key agencies or organizations supported by these agencies;

* shared leadership and extensive participation in the Technical Support Working Group, a federal interagency consortium that jointly identifies requirements and cooperates on CT research and development projects;

* research and development funding applied against the requirements of the HMRU, the Bomb Data Center (render-safe technologies), and the Forensic Analysis Branch, which currently supports a total of 44 projects or programs;

* increased equipment and training for FBI Evidence Response Teams and FBI and police bomb technicians; and

* integration of Laboratory components into multiagency special event, CT planning, staging, as well as tabletop and field exercises. …

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