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FBI hires nuclear physicist to head crime lab

FBI crime lab October 18, 1997
Web posted at: 2:27 p.m. EDT (1827 GMT)

From Correspondent Terry Frieden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI hired the former head of a government nuclear weapons laboratory to direct its troubled crime lab, even though he has no background in forensic science.

The FBI had promised to seek an experienced crime lab scientist from outside the government following a stinging Justice Department report on the lab last spring.

But the man chosen for the post is Donald M. Kerr Jr., 58, a physicist-engineer who from 1979 to 1985 headed the government's Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons are designed.

The FBI acknowledged that Kerr's selection after the National Whistleblowers Center disclosed his name at a news conference Friday.

"It just seems dumbfounding and implausible that they would not hire a world-class forensic scientist to take over the crime lab," center Director Stephen Kohn said.

The selection also was criticized by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"Once again, the FBI has dealt with Congress and the public with incredible arrogance," said the group's vice president, William Moffitt.

Federal Bureau of Investigation officials defended the hiring of Kerr, saying he is the renowned scientist the agency was looking for to beef up its crime lab.

"He has vast experience in managing large lab operations and a long track-record of successfully revitalizing labs," an FBI source told CNN.

A formal announcement of Kerr's hiring is expected Tuesday.

'This is not somebody from the outside'

FBI building

Kris Kolesnik, senior counselor to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the harshest critics of the FBI, said Kerr's work at Los Alamos and more recently for a major defense contractor make him a "real government insider."

"This is not somebody from the outside who's going to bring a fresh breath of air," Kolesnik said.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich blasted the world-renowned crime lab in April for flawed scientific work and inaccurate testimony in major cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing. Bromwich called for a new lab director with a scientific background "preferably in forensic science."

Meanwhile, another flap over the crime lab erupted Friday when chief lab whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst said that in examining FBI lab reports recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, he found that five more FBI examiners had altered lab reports.

"In the last week, I have found five more people that have been altering cases -- five more that the inspector general didn't find," Whitehurst said.


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