FBI tech tracks evidence

Although the FBI last week declined to comment on its role in the ongoing investigation of TWA Flight 800, Danny Greathouse, former chief of the FBI Disaster Squad until his retirement this year, said the bureau is probably using the same technology it employed in its investigation of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Greathouse, who now runs a Washington, D.C.-based forensic and disaster management consulting firm that bears his name, said the FBI has deployed its Rapid Start Unit, a team of technology experts formed last year to investigate the Oklahoma City bombing. The unit set up command posts, the first secure computer and telecommunications network outside FBI headquarters and an 800 number to collect leads.

The evidence-tracking system, which after the Oklahoma City bombing handled 27,000 separate entries and scanned 2.6 million hotel and motel reservations, keeps track of thousands of pieces of evidence. The system determines connections between evidence and leads "that the naked eye just can't see or comprehend," Great-house said.

The system also tracks what leads or evidence are assigned to what office and agent - "an extremely important but nearly impossible task without technology," Great-house said.

Although victims' families and government officials have complained about the slow pace of the investigation, automated systems drastically cut the time it takes to investigate such a crime, FBI officials argue.

Speed Is Crucial

"The key to investigating a crime is how fast you can make connections among thousands of pieces of evidence," Greathouse said. "Because of that, the computer is an absolutely invaluable tool in an investigation like this."

The FBI used its fingerprint image-scanning technology to help identify passengers by matching their fingerprints with criminal files (none of which matched) and by matching prints taken from personal items at victims' homes.

If evidence points to a bomb, the FBI also may use computer technology to help determine where the bomb was placed on the jet. A computer can match where passengers were seated to shrapnel-entry wounds on bodies to locate where the bomb was placed.

Similar technology was used to determine the placement of the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103, which terrorists blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

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