Accuracy in Media

Fred Whitehurst, the former FBI scientist who exposed the sloppy, dishonest work that he observed in the FBI crime lab, wants the media to demand that the FBI and other government agencies be open and accountable. He says that FBI agents with no training in chemistry were assigned to do highly technical work and testified in court about matters they were not qualified to discuss. They got away with it because they were with the FBI and their expertise was not questioned.

For example, the FBI lab had very little data on the ingredients of different brands of paint. Whitehurst made an analysis of one can of paint and was able to identify five different ingredients. He then went to the manufacturer to verify his results. The ingredients were in 13 different bottles, each of which contained several different ingredients. His analysis hadn’t even come close. But that lack of basic data hadn’t stopped FBI agents from claiming that the lab could match chips of paint.

The FBI has gotten away with this because they have not been required to reveal the qualifications of their personnel, the tests they employed, and the data they found. In effect, it was enough to say, “We’re from the FBI. Trust us.” Our government has now admitted that it had some incorrect information about the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that our missiles destroyed, but it insists that it was right about Empta, a chemical whose only use is said to be to produce VX nerve gas, being stored there.

That is based on analysis of a soil sample that contained (quote) “more than twice what would be considered a trace” of Empta. But ingredients in common weed killers can be mistaken for Empta. We have no way of knowing if that mistake was made in the Sudan case since the data are all secret. There is no excuse for this. Invoking secrecy creates suspicion that the government fears that independent scrutiny will turn up flaws in its analysis.

Independent scrutiny has turned up flaws in the government’s claim that it has proven that a reddish residue found on three rows of seats of TWA Flight 800 is glue, not residue from solid rocket fuel as Jim Sanders claimed in his book, The Downing of TWA Flight 800. A test Sanders commissioned found that the residue contained 15 elements, but the government refuses to test the residue for elements. It has used a test appropriate only for organic compounds, claiming this proved that the residue was 3M Scotch-grip adhesive.

C.W. Bassett, the NASA chemist who tested the adhesive for the NTSB, disagrees with that claim, saying the method he was told to use was the wrong one. Independent analyses of the elements in the 3M adhesive reveal big differences between it and the residue as described by the Sanders data. The government won’t replicate the Sanders test, and it won’t let anyone else do so. It is prosecuting Sanders for having accepted the sample sent to him for testing by a member of the investigative team. It looks like they are hiding something.

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