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Top official admits 'serious' problems at FBI lab

fbi seal January 30, 1997
Web posted at: 11:10 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A top Justice Department official acknowledged Thursday that an as-yet unreleased report on the FBI crime laboratory reflects a "serious set of problems," but insisted the possible mishandling of evidence would not damage key criminal cases.

The FBI crime lab analyzes evidence in major cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber case, and the Atlanta Olympic bombing.

"You don't bring in a panel of renowned experts from around the world and have a far-reaching examination ... unless you think it's serious," said Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.

"We do believe that this is a serious set of problems," she said.

"On the other hand, we believe that we have taken appropriate steps to preserve the integrity of our cases," Gorelick said. "And we have every confidence that in the end, everyone will get a fair trial."

Gorelick is second-in-command to Attorney General Janet Reno at the Justice Department, which oversees the FBI.

"In general we have confidence in the lab," Gorelick said, but added, "There are some problems with it that have emerged through this report."

She declined to address the handling of evidence in any particular case until the final report is complete.

"Until the report comes out and there is an opportunity for that case-by-case examination, I'm not in a position -- and no one is in a position -- to know how those will come out," she said. "But I think we have taken steps to preserve our prosecutions."

Gorelick refused to characterize the nature of the laboratory's problems, but said they dealt with a "limited number of units within the lab and a limited number of examinations and cases." She said she could not immediately quantify the extent of the problems.

FBI explosives expert Frederick Whitehurst, who brought the initial allegations against his colleagues at the crime lab, was among four people suspended earlier this week as the result of the unreleased preliminary report by the Justice Department's Inspector General.

Whitehurst, once the bureau's highest-rated explosives residue expert, claimed in 1995 that the lab was biased in favor of prosecutors, that there was contamination during testing, and some supervisors lacked proper training.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said Whitehurst's suspension appeared to be a punishment for his whistle-blowing on the lab.

"When we are able to fully disclose the basis for the FBI's actions the air will be cleared on that," Gorelick said Thursday. "But there isn't more that I can say at this time."


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