- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

QUANTICO, Va. The FBI yesterday opened its $130 million forensic laboratory that can process criminal evidence from DNA and fibers to fingerprints and firearms.

The nearly 500,000-square-foot building houses $25 million in new equipment and furnishings and completes a seven-year project to move scientists from cramped facilities at the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the District.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III will open the laboratory officially today at a dedication ceremony that will include U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Leopold of the USS Cole, the destroyer seriously damaged by a terrorist attack in a Yemeni port in October 2000.

The state-of-the-art laboratory is another step in the FBI's recovery from accusations of shoddy science and poor staff performance, officials said.

Located in the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico, the sleek stone-and-glass building stands on the current FBI Academy campus. The location, about 35 miles south of the District, was chosen in part because the real estate was free.

Dwight E. Adams, director of the FBI laboratory, said the principal difference between the new facility and the lab at the Hoover Building is the design.

"This is a design that separates office space from laboratory space," he said. "We were placed into an office building. It wasn't designed as a laboratory. This building was designed as a laboratory."

Mr. Adams said scientists had to take extra precautions to avoid contaminating evidence at the Hoover Building. At the new facility, the front two-thirds of the building is dedicated to laboratories while the rear third is occupied by offices.

Separate elevators and air-ventilation systems are used for the labs and offices, decreasing the likelihood of evidence contamination. At biological vestibules between the two sides of the building, technicians can wash and change lab coats before entering or leaving.

Three floors of sterile laboratories include a chemistry unit that analyzes explosives residue, two units that analyze different types of DNA, a trace-evidence unit that examines fibers, and labs housing units that analyze hair, glass and soil.

Another part of the building has a firearms-reference library with 5,000 guns that can be disassembled to provide spare parts to test-fire damaged weapons that may have been used in a crime.

On the ground floor, six bays that open to the outdoors can be used to examine whole airplane fuselages or vehicles up to the size of a tractor-trailer.

The building is already fully operational. About 650 employees have occupied the lab since the beginning of the month. The FBI processes evidence for any law enforcement agency in the world that requests such services.

FBI scientists process nearly 250,000 fingerprints a year, but perhaps their most important work involves DNA, which has become a critical tool in solving crimes and exonerating the innocent.

The FBI lab processes about 1,200 DNA samples each year, with many more handled by 190 state and local labs around the country.

The FBI's national DNA database includes 1.4 million profiles of convicts. In 2002, that database provided almost 5,000 matches to samples taken from crime scenes, closing many unsolved cases and freeing police to pursue other crimes.

The lab opening comes as the FBI continues to recover from a whistleblower's accusations in the mid-1990s about poor science, with an estimated 3,000 cases that may have been affected by the problems. One FBI lab technician has resigned, accused of improperly testing 103 DNA samples, all of which are under bureau review.

The bureau's lead-bullet-analysis capabilities also were challenged, and Mr. Adams requested an examination by the National Academy of Sciences. Mr. Adams said he now is "very confident we have valid procedures" for analyzing bullets.

•  This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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