Monday, July 21, 2008

FBI - Federal Bullies and Intimidators

A lab worker for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Kathryn Troyer, finds that DNA samples used to identify criminal suspects may tie unrelated people much closer together than previously thought. For example, she found that two men, one black and one white, matched 9 of 13 standard markers, which theoretically shouldn't happen except between close relatives, and even then quite rarely. She reports her results, as there is a small but real risk of innocent people being convicted by DNA that closely resembles their own, but in fact isn't.

The FBI, according to this L.A. Times article, instead of investigating the discrepancies for themselves, instead promptly begins a massive campaign to discredit Troyer's findings, and attempts to deter states from conducting their own reviews of the Federal DNA database:

"The FBI laboratory, which administers the national DNA database system, tried to stop distribution of Troyer's results and began an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to block similar searches elsewhere, even those ordered by courts, a Times investigation found."

I guess accuracy isn't as important as "authority" to the FBI.

Thomas Callaghan, the martinet head of the database unit, saw fit to raise hell with Troyer after she dared to comply with a legitimate subpoena from a California court, requesting her findings in order to investigate a similar case there:

"Soon after Barlow received the results, Callaghan, the head of the FBI's DNA database unit, reprimanded Troyer's lab in Phoenix, saying it should have sought the permission of the FBI before complying with the court's order in the San Francisco case."

Troyer apparently forgot the rule about every law-enforcement employee in the country having to beg permission from the all-powerful FBI before they do anything, even follow a court order.

If that weren't enough, Tommy the Bully then went so far as to suggest that Illinois and Maryland crime lab personnel tell judges that their states risked getting cut off from the national database if they ordered similar searches in cases before them:

"Callaghan suggested they tell the judge that Illinois could be disconnected from the national database system, the summary shows.",


"According to Groves, Callaghan had told her that complying with the court order could lead Maryland to be disconnected from CODIS"

One imagines Mr. Callaghan crouching in an office somewhere guarding "his" data, stroking the discs and cooing softly to them that "Don't worry, no one will ever get to see or examine you, my Precious".

DNA is a very useful tool that is instrumental in convicting people that have convicted heinous crimes. Just as with any technology, however, it isn't infallible. Is it too much to ask the FBI to figure out just how fallible it actually is and what the limitations to its accuracy are, so that innocent people aren't wrongly convicted? I certainly don't think so.

At a bare minimum, the bureau should be open to scientific challenges to its processes in general, instead of trying to stomp them out of existence in a manner reminiscent of the Catholic Church threatening to burn Galileo for daring to suggest that the Earth isn't the center of the universe.

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