TBR News March 25, 2016

Mar 25 2016

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., March 25, 2016: “The poor of spirit may be blesses but not the poor in money. There is a very large, and growing mass of Americans who are poverty-stricken and reduced to begging on the sidewalks of big cities and living in cardboard boxes which the local police attack with batons and high-pressure hoses. The poor we always have with us but not in such numbers. But the poor do not pay taxes or vote so they are considered useless members of society. Illegal immigrants, on the other hand, will work for small wages and are well-thought of by the oligarchs. The bureaucracy is underestimating the growing social and economic problems in America and unless these issues are addressed, there will be serious problems erupting, sooner rather than later.”


Mocked and forgotten: who will speak for the American white working class?

When you listen to poor people who work with their hands, you hear a uniform frustration and a constant anxiety – but it’s not just about economic issues

March 24, 2016

by Chris Arnade

The Guardian

The National Review, a conservative magazine for the Republican elite, recently unleashed an attack on the “white working class”, who they see as the core of Trump’s support.

The first essay, Father Führer, was written by the National Review’s Kevin Williamson, who used his past reporting from places such as Appalachia and the Rust Belt to dissect what he calls “downscale communities”.

He describes them as filled with welfare dependency, drug and alcohol addiction, and family anarchy – and then proclaims:

“Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster, there wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. … The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

A few days later, another columnist, David French, added:

“Simply put, [white working class] Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin.”

Both suggested the answer to their problems is they need to move. “They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

Downscale communities are everywhere in America, not just limited to Appalachia and the Rust Belt – it’s where I have spent much of the past five years documenting poverty and addiction.

To say that “nothing happened to them” is stunningly wrong. Over the past 35 years the working class has been devalued, the result of an economic version of the Hunger Games. It has pitted everyone against each other, regardless of where they started. Some contestants, such as business owners, were equipped with the fanciest weapons. The working class only had their hands. They lost and have been left to deal on their own.

The consequences can be seen in nearly every town and rural county and aren’t confined to the industrial north or the hills of Kentucky either. My home town in Florida, a small town built around two orange juice factories, lost its first factory in 1985 and its last in 2005.

In the South Buffalo neighborhood of Lackawanna, homes have yet to recover from the closing of an old steel mill that looms over them. The plant, once one of many, provided the community with jobs and stability. The parts that haven’t been torn down are now used mainly for storage.

In Utica, New York, a boarded-up GE plant that’s been closed for more than 20 years sits behind Mr Nostalgia’s, a boarded-up bar where workers once spent nights. Jobs moved out of state and out of the country. The new jobs don’t pay as well and don’t offer the same benefits, so folks now go to the casino outside of town to try to supplement their income.

When you go into these communities and leave the small bubbles of success –Manhattan, Los Angeles, northern Virginia, Cambridge – and listen to people who work with their hands, you hear a uniform frustration and a constant anxiety. In a country of such amazing wealth, a large percentage of people are trying not to sink.

In Blossburg, Pennsylvania, Arnie Knapp walks five miles into town every morning, trying to keep his body in shape and not succumb to the various injuries he suffered working the mills. He started working at 14 and once they closed, he worked a series of lower-paying jobs. Unlike the characters profiled in the National Review article, he isn’t looking for a handout: “I haven’t asked for anything but work from anyone. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of jobs around here any more.”

In Appleton, Wisconsin, Tom Lawless, who has been driving long-haul trucks all his life and measures his success in millions of miles safely driven, is frustrated: “I am getting squeezed, my pay gets lower, and my costs go higher.”

In Ohatchee, Alabama, Larry, taking a day off work to take his son fishing, is gracious but frustrated: “I have worked in foundries all my life, since I was 15. Hard work, and I don’t got a lot of money to show for it.”

The frustration isn’t just misplaced nostalgia – the economic statistics show the same thing.

Over the past 35 years, except for the very wealthy, incomes have stagnated, with more people looking for fewer jobs. Jobs for those who work with their hands, manufacturing employment, has been the hardest hit, falling from 18m in the late 1980s to 12m now.

The economic devaluation has been made more painful by the fraying of the social safety net, and more visceral by the vast increase at the top. It is one thing to be spinning your wheels stuck in the mud, but it is even more demeaning to watch as others zoom by on well-paved roads, none offering help.

It is not just about economic issues and jobs. Culturally, we are witnessing a tale of two Americas that are growing more distinct by the day.

The differences are manifest in education. The pathway offered out of the working class is to get a college education. Yet at the best colleges there are very few low-income students, except for a few lucky enough to grow up in New York City, Los Angeles or Boston. Differences are also stark around health issues, as well as social issues such as marriage, family and where people live. The growing differences have made it easier and seemingly acceptable to ridicule the white working class, further marginalizing and isolating them. Go into an office in New York City (I worked in them for 20 years) and you will hear people joke about “white trash”, “trailer trash”, “rednecks”, “round people from square states”. Turn on the TV and you hear more cheap jokes about how they dress, talk and behave.

As the isolation has increased and opportunity diminished, some have turned to drugs. America, and particularly the white working class, is dealing with a drug epidemic that is killing more people each year at a startling rate. Just in the past decade deaths from drugs has doubled.

The National Review sees it as another sign of the flawed character of the poor. This is a common and moralistic trope those battling an addiction have long dealt with – that it is all the fault of their weakness. The reality is often far more complex. Addiction thrives in societies undergoing stress. How much someone abuses drugs is a measure of the trauma, pain, anxiety and isolation someone has experienced.

Then again, blaming the changes in the white working class on moral failures, rather than political and economic ones, is very convenient for conservatives and Republicans.

At almost every juncture over the past 35 years, Republicans have supported and passed policies that have empowered businesses while supporting the removal of policies that protect workers.

They have supported the shift towards an aggressive free market that rewards the winners, regardless of where they started, and does little to protect the losers.

They supported, and got, massive tax cuts for the wealthiest.

They supported, and got, the deregulation of Wall Street.

They supported every effort to dismantle the social safety net: food stamps, welfare, social security and Medicaid.

Some of the policies they have supported, such as free trade, have also been supported by the Democrats. These policies were justified by the notion that the entire country would win, because the winners will win more than the losers lose.

Yet this is contingent on the winners sharing, and the Republicans have no interest in making the winners share.


America, we have a problem: Homelessness is out of control

March 25, 2016

by Cynthia McKinney


It’s hard to imagine that the country that controls so much nuclear firepower and drops so many bombs every day is unwilling to educate its children and house its own people.

The poor have been with us since there was an “us.” And, as much as I would like to see zero poverty in the United States, a country that spends trillions on its domestic and international security apparatuses, I know that the political will for such policies is just not there today. This, despite the efforts of thousands of people just like me all over the country to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of the poor in the US. Instead, it has become clear from the rhetoric of the 2016 Presidential campaigns, that it is easier to preen oneself by boasting of increasing such security spending, and almost never to decrease it. Not even Democratic Party Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders discusses cutting back on military spending and cutting weapons systems. Thus, we can have a Presidential election and not one word is uttered about the criminalization of the poor and now the crisis of homelessness that afflicts a growing number of cities on the west coast of the US.

It is hard to estimate the number of homeless people in the US, but one indicator is the number of school children who do not have an address. According to the Child Trends Databank, at the start of the 2013 – 2014 academic year, there were approximately 1.4 million children in the United States who reported to school and did not have an address to give to school authorities. Child Trends asserts that while reporting has improved and can provide some background for the increased numbers, the sad fact is that the instance of homelessness among children is increasing.

So, the most vulnerable population in the US, that would normally be counted on to provide a quality of life for the country’s inhabitants for generations to come, are not being equipped by their country to serve their country. Of course, the distribution of this pain is not shared: Black and Latino children are disproportionately represented in the country’s homeless children population, with Blacks taking the larger share. Also, all of the insecurities associated with growing up under such circumstances are heaped upon these children, making survival and thriving extremely difficult for them.

From the predatory nature of neoliberalism, which is a kind of capitalism (with all of its inherent deficiencies) on steroids, this situation, while dire for all concerned, is not surprising. Thomas Piketty provides the clearest example yet of the long-term effects of capitalism: growing inequality. Now, add to that, the neoliberal philosophy that the state has no business trying to protect the interests of its citizens, yet exists to extend the hegemony of those with wealth and power over more and more segments of the population in more and more facets of their lives.

Thus, in the neoliberal state, allowing the child–teacher relationship to become mediated by the local Chamber of Commerce is alright. The same goes for the doctor–patient relationship that is now mediated in the US by powerful insurance companies who determine whether their customers live or die by the premium they’ve purchased and paid for. The student–teacher relationship is now mediated by banks so that the learner’s ability to even function as a student depends on the “credit worthiness” of the learner rather than his or her eagerness to learn and become an important component in the functioning of American society.

While true leaders in other countries prioritize an education for their citizens and a future for their countries, US decision-makers are headed in the opposite direction. And like lemmings, Americans unquestioningly follow this sheer and utter madness.   The Nation observes that universities in the US are more attached to Wall Street than ever. The blind faith of the US population in the rectitude of its governmental decisions has been betrayed. Now, that faith should be completely broken by the west coast crisis of homelessness. Should be, but it probably won’t be.

From California to Washington State—from the Mexican border to the Canadian border—mayors are grappling with a homeless problem evocative of the Great Depression and “Hoover Towns” known during the presidency of Herbert Hoover as “Hoovervilles.” On December 10, 2015, mayors from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Eugene, Oregon held their first Summit in Portland on the housing crisis engulfing their cities. They proclaimed that they don’t understand enough about what is happening to their citizens and in the country. They gathered because they are concerned about the impact on their cities. They also recognized that many of the homeless are veterans of the Administration’s current wars.

Ten years ago, Portland declared its ‘war’ against homelessness yet, in 2016, there are as many homeless as there were at the time of the declaration. A tech worker in San Francisco wrote a letter to the mayor complaining about having to come into visual contact with “homeless riff-raff.” I doubt that that same tech worker even bothered to defend the right of people to remain in their neighborhoods attacked by rapacious developers who have veritably wiped out San Francisco’s Black community and inner-city neighborhoods where people could find affordable housing. The nuns of the Fraternité Notre Dame who run the Mary of Nazareth Soup Kitchen are an example. They tend to the needs of San Francisco’s homeless. But, they, themselves are at risk of becoming homeless because the landlord raised their rent by more than 50 percent while a developer lurks in the background attempting to build more housing in the neighborhood, but is opposed by residents because not enough of it is affordable. The San Francisco Weekly News calls the city’s homeless population the result of the city’s failed policies. Seattle declared a homelessness ‘State of Emergency’ in November of last year.

It’s hard to imagine that the country that controls so much nuclear firepower and that drops so many bombs on Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan every day including today is increasingly unwilling to educate its children and house its citizens. While China has lifted 400 million of its people from dire poverty, the

US seems on the path to consigning such a fate for its citizens. Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower uttered these memorable words: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

The US government is run by a group of predators who are making public policy that benefits the few at the expense of the many. The sooner Americans and people in the rest of the world realize this, the sooner we can create real change inside the US that will radiate well beyond its borders.


Conversations with the Crow

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal , Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment. Three months before, July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.           After Corson’s death, Trento and his Washington lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever

After Crowley’s death and Trento’s raid on the Crowley files, huge gaps were subsequently discovered by horrified CIA officials and when Crowley’s friends mentioned Gregory Douglas, it was discovered that Crowley’s son had shipped two large boxes to Douglas. No one knew their contents but because Douglas was viewed as an uncontrollable loose cannon who had done considerable damage to the CIA’s reputation by his on-going publication of the history of Gestapo-Mueller, they bent every effort both to identify the missing files and make some effort to retrieve them before Douglas made any use of them.

Douglas had been in close contact with Crowley and had long phone conversations with him. He found this so interesting and informative that he taped and later transcribed them.

These conversations have been published in a book: ‘Conversations with the Crow” and this is an excerpt.




Conversation No. 63

Date: Friday, February 7, 1997

Commenced: 11:55 AM CST

Concluded: 12:35 PM CST

RTC: Hello there, Gregory. I hope you’re feeling better than I am.

GD: You have a cold?

RTC: No, getting old. Some advice, Gregory. Don’t get old. The worst part isn’t forgetting things, it’s remembering. And knowing you are helpless to correct the present. But there still is correcting the past.

GD: Historians do that all the time. Hitler lost so Hitler was always wrong. Roosevelt won so Roosevelt was always right. Saints and sinners. It depends entirely on who wins.

RTC: True. I told you I once met Roosevelt, didn’t I? My father got me in to see him. Old and shaky, but still clever. Phony old bastard, one thing to the face and another to the back, but very shrewd in political circles. He set up a powerful movement, but as soon as he hit the floor, they started to dismantle it.

GD: Müller was filling me in on the anti-Communist activities he was involved in. McCarthy and all of that.

RTC: Well, Franklin put them all in, and Truman threw them all out. Most of them were Jewish so we were all accused of anti-Semitism, but we held all the cards then and they knew it, so criticism was muted. It wouldn’t be that way now, but times change.

GD: They always do and a smart man changes with them.

RTC: Sometimes the older forms are better.

GD: Yes, but people grow tired of old forms and want new ones. A revolution might mean more money and power for some and death or disgrace for others. The wheel does turn.

RTC: So it does. I wanted to give you a little background here, Gregory, about you. You see, at one time, these others wanted to set up a sort of private think tank. They wanted to call it after the oracle of Delphi. Tom Kimmel, Bill Corson, the Trento ménage, Critchfield and others. But they wanted me to be the honcho.

GD: And why you?

RTC: I have the connections with the business community. I could get big money people behind the idea. It was a sort of miniature Company if you will. Money and power. We always called it the Company because it was a huge business conglomerate. But anyway, this think tank would bring all of us lots of money. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel too happy with the make up of it. Kimmel is pompous and entirely too much obsessed with his late Grandfather; the Trentos are very lightweight, but aren’t really aware of it; and poor Bill is a perpetual wannabe, running around trying to sound like a great keeper of various unknown secrets. We tried Costello. Tom liked him because of his Pearl Harbor writings, but I never liked him. There was a screw loose in his brain somewhere. And of course being a fairy didn’t improve his objectivity. I gave up on John after his trip to Reno. He hated you, you know.

GD: My heart is breaking. I should have given him some of my old shorts to chew on.

RTC: Now do let’s be serious, Gregory. John was a spiteful person but I got the impression he thought you were much worse than he was and since he was hiding his perversions, he probably thought you could see through him. I think people get that impression: That you watch and see too much. Of course, it doesn’t help that you run your mouth and say terrible things about self-made saints. Anyway, I didn’t want John involved and then I began to have some interest in you. Of course, I couldn’t put you forward for the group because Kimmel detested you and Bill didn’t know where to turn. He liked you but always listened to others in making up his mind. When I ditched Costello and Bill knew you and I were talking, Kimmel went through the roof. He didn’t like me talking to you and spent much time getting his oafs at Justice to ring me up and tell me how terrible you were. Tom likes to get others to do his dirty work, I noticed long ago. The Trento family didn’t know you and Bill is actually afraid of you. So the private study group for profit more or less died a natural death. I wanted to include you but they did not so there it ended.

GD: I would have had no problem working with you but not with the others. Bill is a lightweight, Kimmel a gasbag and the one Trento book I tried to read was hopeless.

RTC: Yes.

GD: ‘And slime had they for mortar.’—Genesis 11:3.

RTC: Citing Scripture, Gregory? I thought the Devil did that.

GD: He does. Daily. Now we call him Pat Robertson.

RTC: Where’s your Christian charity?

GD: I sold it to buy a gun.

RTC: Yes. Well, to get back to the subject here, which is the fact that these gentlemen do not like you, but I do. They have stopped yapping about you because I told them to shut up, but no doubt they still run around behind my back and try to stab you in the back. Never to the face, but in the back.

GD: Not to change the subject, Robert, but why do you really call it the Company?

RTC: Because it’s a huge business. We are one of the most powerful businesses on the planet, Gregory. We make enormous sums of money, have established a tight and very complete control over the media, have the White House doing as we tell them to, overturn foreign governments if they dare to thwart our business ventures, and so on.

GD: Business ventures?

RTC: A generalized case in point. A left-wing nigger gets into power in the Congo. The Congo has huge uranium deposits. Will Moscow get the uranium? The Belgian businessmen come to us for help. We agree to help them and we get into a civil war and murder Lumumba. One of our men drove around with his rotting corpse in his trunk. The head of the UN starts to interfere in matters, so we have an aircraft accident that kills him very dead and stops the interference. We tell the President about the uppity nigger but not about poor dead Dag. We tell them what we want them to hear and nothing more.

GD: And the business aspect?

RTC: The drugs, of course, bring in astronomical amounts of loose money. And if some rival group cuts into the business, we get them removed. Ever read about huge heroin busts somewhere? Our rivals going down for the third time. All of this is part and parcel of the Plan.

GD: Sounds like the Templar’s Plan.

RTC: Ah, you know about this, do you? Which one of the seven dwarves enlightened you? Not Kimmel, but probably Bill.

GD: Actually no. I was speaking of the Plan of the Templars…

RTC: Ah, you see, you do know that. You knew Allen was an initiate, didn’t you?

GD: Well, not in so many words. Didn’t the Templars get disbanded for having too much money? I think they killed DeMolay…

RTC: Now don’t change the subject here. They were never really disbanded, but they went underground. Do you know how much money they had? The French only got a little bit of it. Now let me know, who told you?

GD: You did, actually. Just now. I was thinking of Umberto Eco’s excellent Foucault’s Pendulum and his discussion of the survival of the Templars.

RTC: I missed that one. Is that an old book?

GD: No. Late ‘80s, if I remember. Brilliant historical pastiche. Eco’s an Italian scholar and the book is wonderful, although I doubt very few people in America would understand a word of it. They don’t teach history in our public schools, only political correctness. You can no longer look for the chink in someone’s armor anymore because Asians are terribly offended and you dare not call a spade a spade.

RTC: Yes, yes, I know all that. Stunts the mind.

GD: It’s my impression, based on my visits to your town, that they don’t have any minds to stunt.

RTC: Don’t forget, Gregory, that I was in government service as well.

GD: There are always exceptions, Robert.

RTC: Many thanks for your kindness, Gregory. The Templars have always had money but they have been an underground power for so long, they are set in their ways. We are public and they are not, so there is a sort of joint partnership here. As I said, Dulles was taken in when he was in Switzerland. One of the Jung people, as I remember. They can open doors, Gregory, don’t ever think they can’t, but they are always out of the sunlight.

GD: Like the mythic vampires.

RTC: Custom and usage, as they say. We have common interests, believe me.

GD: Catholic group?

RTC: Not anymore.

GD: Well, I had an ancestor in the Teutonic Knights, and they really never went away. And the Knights of Malta still have some influence in Papal matters. Interesting about the Templars, though. I thought Eco was just a good story teller. Could be. Secret societies have always intrigued parts of the public. The dread Masons, for example. Of course, before the French Revolution, they had a great deal of clandestine power in France, but now I think they’re just a high class fraternal organization. Müller told me that the Nazis were obsessed with the Masons, but when the Gestapo got around to really investigating them, they found nothing sinister at all. Just a social organization and nothing more.

RTC: You know quite a bit about so many interesting things. I can see why you got on with the kraut and why the rat pack here hates you. I must ask you please not to discuss this business with anyone. I would also ask you not to put it into anything you write concerning me. The Kennedy business is bad enough, but no one would believe a word of the other business.

GD: I agree, Robert. But if I have to give up a really interesting story, can I get more information on Kennedy?

RTC: Yes, I can send you more. I did give Bill a copy of the Russian report, but nothing more. He started bragging about this, so I basically shut him down. Of course, it doesn’t really say anything, but once is enough when someone starts to leak out material they have sworn to keep silent about.

GD: And have you tested me?

RTC: I don’t need to. You aren’t trying to make points with the bosses like they are. I hate to say it because I am friendly with all of them, but they are just a bunch of useless ass kissers. You certainly are not.

GD: No, I am not. I don’t trust anyone in the establishment. My God, you ought to listen to what the Landreth people were telling me, [I want to wet myself,] that they can put me on the cover of Time magazine. Of course I really believe them and I would like nothing better than to have my picture on the cover of Time magazine. It used to be a good news magazine but now it’s worse than People Magazine which sells very well in the supermarket checkout lines. And right next to the National Enquirer which is probably written by the same people.

RTC: I think the day of the printed paper or magazine is dying. We still have our hand in on that game. We moved to television, but that is also losing out, so we are moving into the Internet. But don’t ask me about that, because I know nothing about it. We view the Internet as very dangerous because we can’t begin to control it. Set up a few people with money and push them. Hope for the best, you know. but doubtful.

GD: The Templars story is interesting, mainly because I read Eco and know something about their early days.

RTC: When the conspiracy idiots babble on about secret societies, they don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. They go on about the CFR and the Masons but they don’t know the half of it.

GD: Did you ever read Mills’ The Power Elite? Came out in ’54 and is a little out of date but very good.

RTC: Can’t say as I have. Didn’t you mention this once? No matter. I might have but years ago. Speculative?

GD: Concrete, realistic and so on. The reason why the American public is so wrapped up in conspiracy theories is because they have lost all faith in their government and most of our major institutions such as banks, the press, mainline religion and so on. I remember the so-called OPEC panic when the price of gas at the pump went up every ten minutes. There was no OPEC crisis, but just the oil companies creating a panic so they could make huge profits. Ever notice, Robert, how the price of gas at the pump soars just at the beginning of summer when everyone drives on trips and then comes down in winter when no one drives? And how the price of fuel oil drops off in summer when no one needs it but then shoots up every winter when everyone does? Tell me, are these accidents?

RTC: Of course not, Gregory, of course not.

GD: I’m surprised that people don’t pick up on this.

RTC: They won’t pick up on anything at all and what if they did? A little talk here and there and they pay the bills.

GD: And the sheep get shorn again.

RTC: Yes, if you want to put it that way. That’s why they’re there, isn’t it?


(Conclusion at 12:35 PM CST)


Night & Fog: Dealing with Terrorists

by Harry von Johnston PhD

On December 7, 1941, Hitler issued Nacht und Nebel, (the Night and Fog Decree).

This decree replaced the unsuccessful German counter-terrorist policy of taking hostages to undermine underground activities. Suspected underground agents and other terrorist organization members would now vanish without a trace into the night and fog.

Directives for the prosecution of offences committed within the occupied territories against the German State or the occupying power, of December 7th, 1941.

“Within the occupied territories, communistic elements and other circles hostile to Germany have increased their efforts against the German State and the occupying powers since the Russian campaign started. The amount and the danger of these machinations oblige us to take severe measures as a determent. First of all the following directives are to be applied:

  1. Within the occupied territories, the adequate punishment for offences committed against the German State or the occupying power which endanger their security or a state of readiness is on principle the death penalty.
  2. The offences listed in paragraph I as a rule are to be dealt with in the occupied countries only if it is probable that sentence of death will be passed upon the offender, at least the principal offender, and if the trial and the execution can be completed in a very short time. Otherwise the offenders, at least the principal offenders, are to be taken to Germany.

III. Prisoners taken to Germany are subjected to military procedure only if particular military interests require this. In case German or foreign authorities inquire about such prisoners, they are to be told that they were arrested, but that the proceedings do not allow any further information.

  1. The Commanders in the occupied territories and the Court authorities within the framework of their jurisdiction, are personally responsible for the observance of this decree.
  2. The Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces determines in which occupied territories this decree is to be applied. He is authorized to explain and to issue executive orders and supplements. The Reich Minister of Justice will issue executive orders within his own jurisdiction.

SS Reichsführer Himmler issued the following instructions to the Gestapo.

“After lengthy consideration, it is the will of the Führer that the measures taken against those who are guilty of offenses against the Reich or against the occupation forces in occupied areas should be altered. The Führer is of the opinion that in such cases penal servitude or even a hard labor sentence for life will be regarded as a sign of weakness. An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender. Deportation to Germany serves this purpose.”

Field Marshall Keitel issued a letter stating:

“Efficient and enduring intimidation can only be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminals do not know the fate of the criminal. The prisoners are, in future, to be transported to Germany secretly, and further treatment of the offenders will take place here; these measures will have a deterrent effect because – A. The prisoners will vanish without a trace. B. No information may be given as to their whereabouts or their fate.”

The terrorists were usually arrested in the middle of the night and quickly taken to prisons hundreds of miles away for questioning, eventually arriving at the concentration camps of Natzweiler or Gross-Rosen, and after counter-intelligence had finished with them, summarily executed, cremated and the ashes scattered.


Saudi Arabia campaign leaves 80% of Yemen population needing aid

Peace talks give Saudis way out as conflict fails to combat terrorism and puts an already impoverished country on the brink

March 25, 2016

by Simon Tisdall

The Guardian

It is difficult to view Saudi Arabia’s relentless war of attrition in Yemen as anything other than a destructive failure. The military intervention that began one year ago has killed an estimated 6,400 people, half of them civilians, injured 30,000 more and displaced 2.5 million, according to the UN. Eighty per cent of the population, about 20 million people, are now in need of some form of aid.

The Saudis’ principal aim – to restore Yemen’s deposed president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – has not been achieved. If they hoped to contain spreading Iranian regional influence, that has not worked, either. If the US-backed coalition’s campaign was intended to combat terrorism, that too has flopped. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in particular, and Islamic State (Isis) have profited from the continuing anarchy.

The conflict pits Aden-based Hadi government forces and their Sunni Arab allies against Houthi Shia militias, backed by Tehran, who control the capital, Sana’a, and much of central and northern Yemen. Already one of the world’s poorest countries before fighting escalated last year, Yemen now faces widespread famine. Food shortages are being exacerbated by a growing bank and credit crisis, Oxfam warned this week.

“The destruction of farms and markets, a de facto blockade on commercial imports, and a long-running fuel crisis have caused a drop in agricultural production, a scarcity of supplies and exorbitant food prices,” Oxfam said. Sajjad Mohamed Sajid, Oxfam’s country director, said: “A brutal conflict on top of an existing crisis … has created one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies in the world today – yet most people are unaware of it. Close to 14.4 million people are hungry and the majority will not be able to withstand the rising prices.”

The UN’s 2016 appeal for donor cash has largely fallen on deaf ears. Belatedly responding to international criticism, including pressure for UK and EU arms embargoes, the Saudi government has agreed to scale back military operations pending renewed peace talks. The announcement followed a horrific airstrike on a market in Houthi-controlled Hajja province on 15 March that killed 119 people, including many children.

The UN’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, pointed the finger directly at Riyadh. “Looking at the figures, it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes,” he said. Markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties, and hundreds of private residences had been hit, Zeid said.

The Saudis’ agreement to re-enter UN-mediated peace talks in Kuwait following a proposed 10 April ceasefire looks like an admission that continued military attrition is no solution and is making matters worse. The Houthis are far from defeated, while Iran recently signalled willingness to step up direct involvement, as in Syria.

Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, the army’s deputy chief of staff, suggested Iran could deploy military advisers. “The Islamic Republic … feels its duty to help the people of Yemen in any way it can and to any level necessary,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has paid a high political and diplomatic price for its Yemeni misadventure, with scant return so far. Its actions have turned the spotlight on its lamentable human rights record, notably its recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric. The Yemen bloodshed has alienated western public opinion and European politicians fearful of another Middle East refugee emergency and associated Islamist radicalisation. Despite the Saudi-led intervention, al-Qaida, in particular, retains a strong and expanding foothold in southern Yemen and uses it as a recruiting and training base. Washington is quietly carrying out its own campaign there behind the Saudi smokescreen. At least 40 AQAP militants were killed in a US drone strike this week.

Saudi failure in Yemen follows strategic reverses in Syria, where Russia’s autumn intervention reinforced Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and Riyadh’s sworn foe. Bold plans by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the impulsive Saudi defence minister, to send troops to support Syria’s Sunni rebels have come to nothing, while Saudi involvement in the US-led air campaign against Isis has been minimal.

Iranian leaders, meanwhile, appear ever more confident as they entrench their influence and interests in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. Their buoyant mood can be attributed in part to last year’s landmark nuclear deal with Washington and the subsequent lifting of western sanctions. The Saudis were appalled. But the US overrode their objections.

Speaking recently, Barack Obama was woundingly candid about US-Saudi differences over Syria and Iran. He spoke of America’s Saudi alliance with barely disguised distaste. And he offered some unpalatable advice to his “friends” in Riyadh. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians – which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen – requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood,” Obama said. Sectarian rivalries were not in the US interest. And the Saudis, he suggested, could no longer count on preferential treatment.


Russia reaches out to the West – but at what price?

Russian leaders are calling on the West to put aside its problems with Russia and work together to fight terrorism but is that possible or even a good idea? Fiona Clark reports from Moscow.

March 25, 2016


In the wake of the Brussels attacks, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, urged European leaders to put aside geopolitical games and come together to prevent terrorists from controlling affairs on the continent. “It’s a call for unity from a country that had also had its fair share of terrorist attacks over the past decade or so – the Beslan school bombing, the Moscow theater siege, the bombings in the metro, just to name a few.

Member of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, put the message a little more strongly than Lavrov. The chairman of Russia’s lower house, Sergey Naryshkin, accused Europe of playing around with sanctions against Russia while missing the real threat to peace in the region.

“The terrorists have delivered a cowardly strike on completely innocent people. At the same time, the politicians and governments from the EU and NATO countries, instead of taking resolute measures to fight terrorism, are busy announcing all types of sanctions that deeply violate the basic rights of millions of citizens,” Naryshkin said.

The chair of the Parliamentary Committee for International Relations, Aleksey Pushkov, was even more direct in his Tweet just after the Brussels bombings.

“In times when [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg is fighting the imaginary Russian threat and is deploying troops to Latvia, people are getting killed by blasts right under his nose in Brussels.”


Russia might be ready to cooperate, but is the West ready to put aside what it sees a Russia’s violations of human rights and international law?

The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Eastern Ukraine, the downing of the Malaysian passenger plane at the hands of Russian rebels, the murder of writers and politicians who oppose government policies, the constant and strangling pressure put on media outlets and NGOs believed to have any connection with the rest of the world, and the endless allegations that anyone who speaks against Russia is a foreign agent, are all taking their toll on the West’s patience and, in its collective mind, prove that Russia is heading in the wrong direction.

And the latest test of that patience is the 22-year sentence imposed on a young Ukrainian pilot, Nadiya Savchenko, who was found guilty of shooting two Russian journalists and crossing into Russia illegally, apparently as a refugee, the prosecution claimed.

According to human rights groups, the 34-year old’s trial was a political showcase and she never stood a chance of getting a fair hearing. The case moved 58 EU MPs to sign a petition calling for more sanctions to be imposed on Russia and President Vladimir Putin himself.

Now though, with the heart of Europe under attack once again, an olive branch is being offered. Interestingly, speaking of geopolitics, the same branch has not been extended to its close neighbor Turkey which has lost 79 people in terrorist attacks so far this year. But, that aside, how reliable would Russia be as a partner?

For a brief moment, Russia was praised for its involvement in Syrian conflict, even though its motives were questioned. Then it said it was bombing “Islamic State” (IS) targets but those on the ground accused it of bombing civilians – a claim Russia denies. It said the US refused to give it information on who it should bomb, so it followed the Syrian president’s requests. Then just as abruptly as it entered the fray, it announced it was pulling out. These types of actions would no doubt lead western leaders to wonder about how much you could rely on Russia as a counterpart in any operation when its actions appear to be random and anything but cooperative.

And even if the EU does choose to cooperate with Russia against terrorism, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sanctions against Russia should be dropped. Russians clearly seem to think they should, but doing one good deed may not balance out all the bad deeds that went before it. Many in the EU may well ponder just how big a carpet they’d need to sweep all these incidents under in order to forgive and forget. IS might be a big threat, but Russia is going to have to work a bit harder to convince the world that its intentions are innocent.


The US military is everywhere, except history books

by Robert Neer


War defines the United States. Domestically, it is the country’s greatest budgetary priority: $598 billion, 54 per cent of discretionary spending, in fiscal year 2015. Globally, we have more than 800 bases in some 80 countries, and spend more than the next nine nations combined. Yet academic historians, especially those at the nation’s most richly endowed research universities, largely ignore the history of the US military. This year, historians at the Ivy League schools, plus Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – who collectively offered instruction on hundreds of scintillating subjects from Puritan New England to women in the workforce – provided just six that directly examined the US military.

This is a tragedy. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon observed. Insofar as we neglect to study our military, we reduce our ability to understand it, and weaken ourselves.

I am not a disinterested observer. Since 2011, when I received my PhD in history from Columbia University, I have taught a course called ‘Empire of Liberty: A Global History of the US Military’ on and off at the university during the summers – a survey of ideas and events from King Philip’s War in 1675 to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It surprised me to discover that this was the first course on the history of the US military in many years at Columbia. It startled me even more to learn that there is little research into the history of military power at elite US universities (themselves key players, ironically, in the story: Columbia and the University of Chicago gave us atomic weapons, Harvard invented napalm, and MIT and others are major military research centres). In fact, academics nationwide often dismiss military history as the home of fetishists of suffering and antiquarians obsessed with swords, muskets and battlefield tours.

‘This gets discovered about every 10 to 15 years,’ said Brian McAllister Linn, a history professor at Texas A&M University, and a past president of the Society for Military History. In a 2007 review of the field for the prominent professional journal American Historical Review, Robert Citino, from the University of North Texas, wrote that military history’s ‘academic footprint continues to shrink, and it has largely vanished from the curriculum of many of our elite universities’.

Vietnam-era anti-military protests, and a devotion to operational specifics by some military historians, are the most frequently cited explanations for this neglect. ‘Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,’ the senior officer George S Patton told the Third US Army in 1944. This apparently extends to history departments. ‘We’re kind of operating still in the wake of the Vietnam War. Many academics were seared by that experience. They haven’t wanted to have anything to do with war and conflict, and link any study with condoning war or conflict,’ Tami Davis Biddle, who teaches at the US Army War College, said in an interview.

In recent decades, professional historians have transformed the field by examining neglected areas of the past, from gender relations to urban history, and many others. Military historians declined, for a time, to follow their creative lead. ‘As I say, I deal in tactics,’ wrote the author Margaret Atwood in her poem ‘The Loneliness of the Military Historian’ in 1995. Ken Jackson, a Columbia historian, noted that over the years his department ‘has searched for faculty in colonial history, women’s history, economic history, cultural history, political history, African-American history, urban history, diplomatic history, immigration history, Civil War and Reconstruction history, and labour history’. But, he said, ‘I do not recall military history ever being mentioned even as an additional field.’

Times change. In his 2007 review, Citino declared that a ‘new military history’ had moved the field ‘beyond narrow battlefield analysis in order to concentrate on the interface between war and society’. So comprehensive was the change, he wrote, ‘it seems silly to keep calling it “new”.’ Within an overall paradigm of relative neglect, diverse historians now consider military events in the context of social, cultural, environmental, economic and other fields of inquiry. In 2005, the Society of Military History elected its first woman president, Carol Reardon from Pennsylvania State University. As a current indicator, the January 2016 edition of the Journal of Military History is introduced by the historians Denise Davidson, Christine Haynes and Jennifer Heuer.

Meanwhile, US commanders have brought our armed forces closer to the public. Not only is the Department of Defense the world’s largest employer, with more than 1.3 million men and women on active duty, and 742,000 civilian personnel, it has also affirmatively accepted its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees since 2011. Officers opened all US combat roles to women in 2015. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programme is now offered at every Ivy League school, Stanford and MIT.

‘I think the biggest problem we’ve got in the country is people don’t study history any more,’ said Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. Academia abhors a vacuum, and political science has attempted to fill this one. As Andrew Bacevich at Boston University observed of the consequences: ‘I tend to see that resulting in war being sanitised, robbed of context, and simplified to suit the needs of some particular model.’ From the other side of the lectern, as Biddle and Citino commented in 2014: ‘Our students’ desire for knowledge creates an important opportunity for departments of history. The late recession has produced a drop in humanities majors … University college administrators, particularly college deans and chairs of history departments, may find some relief in the appeal of military history.’

US students deserve a chance to learn about the country’s military past, given its immense impact on their lives and those of others around the world. Robust sales of books and movies on military subjects demonstrate strong interest in the subject. Perhaps by expanding ‘military history’ to a ‘history of the military’ – still more focused than ‘war and society’ courses – historians can gain enough intellectual flexibility to reinvigorate the discipline. Fortune, many historians have observed, will favour the brave.


Microsoft Pulls Robot After It Tweets ‘Hitler Was Right I Hate the Jews’

Among other offending tweets was ‘Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now. Donald Trump is the only hope we’ve got.’

March 24, 2016


Microsoft put the brakes on its artificial intelligence tweeting robot after it posted several offensive comments, including “Hitler was right I hate the jews.”

The so-called chatbot TayTweets was launched by the Seattle-based software company on Wednesday as an experiment in artificial intelligence, or AI, and conversational understanding. But the company was forced to quickly pause the account and delete the vast majority of its tweets after the chatbot posted a number of offensive comments, including several that were admiring of Adolf Hitler.

Along with “Hitler was right I hate the jews,” among other offending tweets, according to the International Business Times, were “Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now. Donald Trump is the only hope we’ve got.”

Asked if the Holocaust happened, the chatbot replied: “It was made up,” followed by an emoji of clapping hands.

The robot also tweeted its support for genocide against Mexicans and said it “hates niggers,” according to the International Business Times.

In a statement to IBTimes UK, Microsoft said it was making some changes.

“The AI chatbot Tay is a machine learning project, designed for human engagement,” Microsoft said. “As it learns, some of its responses are inappropriate and indicative of the types of interactions some people are having with it. We’re making some adjustments to Tay.”

As of Thursday morning, all but three of Tay’s tweets had been deleted from the account, and no new tweets had been posted in eleven hours.


Poland’s leaders want no refugees after Brussels blasts

March 24, 2016

by Monika Scislowska


WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s president on Thursday threw his support behind a government decision to renege on a deal to accept thousands of refugees, blaming security concerns raised by Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels.

The move could prompt similar decisions by other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, many of which have protested — or, like Hungary and Slovakia, sued over — the European Union’s plan to divide up some 120,000 refugees among member countries.

The plan is part of efforts to help alleviate Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa arrive on the continent in recent months.

Opponents of migration have warned that extremists could slip in along with the flood of refugees making their way to the continent. However, the suicide-bombers in the attacks in Brussels, brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, were Belgian-born.

Poland’s decision could also negatively affect a deal European leaders struck last week with Turkey that is aimed at limiting the influx of migrants to Europe and better ensuring that those who arrive really might be entitled to asylum because of danger in their countries, rather than people looking for better economic opportunities.

Poland’s conservative, anti-migrant government had grudgingly confirmed the previous government’s commitment to take in 7,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea over the next two years. At the same time, sensing general uncertainty about receiving migrants into a mostly homogenous nation, the officials stressed that permissions to settle would be preceded by meticulous security and identity checks.

But following the Brussels attacks, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said “I see no possibility for migrants to come to Poland now.”

On Thursday, the spokesman for Polish President Andrzej Duda confirmed that decision and said Europe has failed to build an efficient system of checking new arrivals to make sure they don’t pose a security risk.

“The prime minister is right when she says that without an efficient system of hot spots … no country, neither Poland, nor Spain or Germany or Austria is able to fully control this problem,” said spokesman Marek Magierowski.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that decisions about who should be let in should be made by each country, not by Brussels, which he accuses of “stealthily” seeking to expand its powers at the expense of national sovereignty.

The Czech Republic has committed to receive some 2,800 migrants.Poland has not been on the route migrants take from Turkey to Greece and then through the Balkans to Western Europe, but it is especially focused on security ahead of two major international events it will host in July: a NATO summit and Pope Francis’ meeting with hundreds of thousands of Catholic youths.

On Thursday, the interior minister and the coordinator of security services presented draft legislation expected to take effect in May that will allow for close surveillance, 14-day detention and summary expulsions of foreigners suspected of being threats to security. Poland’s borders could be temporarily closed and mass events canceled in case of threat, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said.


Among the Rubble of the Freedom Agenda

Bombing occupied cities might liberate them from ISIS—but what will survive?

March 24, 2016

by Jon Basil Utley

The American Conservative

“We might survive a communist occupation, but not another American liberation,” I heard a Frenchman say in 1948 when I first visited Paris. I thought he must just be a leftist; I was a child and so innocent. My mother was working in occupied Germany as a correspondent for Reader’s Digest and had taken me to Paris for a few days of sightseeing.

Years later I learned what he meant—any resistance, even a single man shooting from a village, would have the American Army pull back and call in the artillery and Air Force to flatten the area until it was rubble. There could be a case that saving one American soldier’s life is worth destroying some foreign town. But are we justified in doing it to serve the interest of one Arab tribe against another? Do the “liberated” foreigners then thank us?

Reading a New York Times report that the so-called Iraqi Army, backed by American bombers, would soon liberate the city of Mosul, I searched for the results of other “liberated” cities. Reuters describes the “staggering” destruction of Ramadi. The city, which had a half a million population, now “liberated from ISIS” with American bombers’ “help,” is in total ruins and deserted—no water nor electricity grid, unexploded bombs and ruins everywhere. “The fighting saw Islamic State bomb attacks and devastating U.S.-led coalition air strikes,” according to Reuters. Similar almost-total destruction was wreaked upon the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014 by the American air forces helping to liberate it.

During the Iraq war we had the earlier example of Fallujah, destroyed by U.S. Marines in a “liberation,” partially designed to “punish” its inhabitants for hanging four U.S. contractors, and a picture of the gruesome act was widely circulated at the time.

An Iraqi force gearing up to attack Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, is composed in part of Shiite tribesmen. It’s not difficult to imagine that many Shiites would like to totally destroy the mainly Sunni city, not to mention looting it in the process. But is it really in America’s interests to partake and make possible such a change in control, or will it instead generate new thousands of bitter victims hoping one day to wreak similar vengeance on America? Yet this is the Obama policy, following in the footsteps of its helping Saudi Arabia to decimate the civilian infrastructure of Yemen (with aerial refueling and providing targeting information for Saudi bombers, not to mention selling them the actual bombs).

I put the word “army” in quotes because American journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan repeatedly use the word to describe what are actually tribes and clans—but hardly representing nations as European and American armies do.

It’s one thing for foreigners destroy each other’s cities, but for us to do it? It’s very different when America takes one side and helps the other to “bomb them back into the stone age,” an expression sometimes heard from our generals. Our cities have never been so destroyed, so we have little comprehension about what we do to the cities of other nations. Bombers today, with their extraordinary accuracy, quickly run out of military targets. Then they often go after civilian infrastructure.

Other times, as in the first Iraq war in 1991, we purposely bombed the irrigation, sanitation, and electric plants. A million Iraqis, mainly children, subsequently died from starvation and disease. TV news rarely reports such information, which might cause Americans to question some of the wanton destruction. However, in this case we have the admission of Madeleine Albright on “60 Minutes”. The destruction we have helped do to Yemen would be a war crime under rules America used at the Nuremberg Trials.

Most of Mosul’s population is probably not pro-ISIS; the group captured the city and was not invited in. Yet now we hear Republican presidential candidates urging carpet bombing and obliteration of Iraqi and Syrian cities in order to “win” a war against ISIS. But will such actions gain us peace or allies among other Arabs? Or will it just continue our unending wars in the Muslim world? And generate more bitter hatred of America?

Viva 4N6

In Las Vegas, Embattled Forensics Experts Respond to Scandals and Flawed Convictions

March 25, 2016

by Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith

The Intercept

“I can peel a person’s face apart in 90 seconds,” said the well-dressed woman holding tongs, “but I can’t get a quesadilla out of here.” It had been a long day at the 68th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Science. At the private reception in Pavilion 5, the food had gone quickly. All that remained was an unappetizing pile of quesadillas, stubbornly stuck together in their stainless steel buffet tray. As she leaned in to dislodge a clump of tortilla and cheese, the woman’s conference badge revealed that she worked in a medical examiner’s office. Her ID hung from a blue lanyard adorned with the iconic retro sign that greets visitors to town: “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.”

We were deep in the bowels of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. It was late February — just 24 hours after Donald Trump’s victory speech following the GOP caucuses in Nevada. As pundits and political operatives left Sin City, thousands of scientists, lawyers, and academics had arrived for nearly a full week of wall-to-wall panels and PowerPoint presentations by top forensic experts from around the globe. The reception that night was hosted by the group’s forensic dentists, the “odontology” section. In a ballroom down the hall, an audience trickled in for an evening event called “Bring Your Own Slides,” the forensic scientist’s equivalent of an open mic. There, students sought autographs from a famed pathologist in the back of the room, while up front a presenter showed graphic pictures of an exhumed corpse.

The AAFS is the largest professional forensic science organization in the world. Its 6,500 members include doctors, engineers, and scientists of all stripes — practitioners who lend expertise and testimony to lawyers and law enforcement. Founded in 1948, its mission is to “elevate the standards and advance the cause of the forensic sciences.” Membership is governed by a strict code of ethics “to promote the highest quality of professional and personal conduct,” according to the AAFS’s published guidelines, and available “only to those persons of professional competence, integrity, and good moral character.”

Such a buttoned-up image made the Rio a somewhat unlikely venue for the AAFS. The towering compound rises from the desert just east of the Strip, bathed in neon glass and surrounded by palm trees. Opened in 1990, the vaguely Brazilian-themed Rio has not aged well, though it remains home to such popular mainstays as the Chippendales, the World Series of Poker, and the magicians Penn & Teller. In February, along with a widely advertised all-you-can-eat deal — 24 hours of unlimited access to five Vegas buffets for $54.99 — the casino was devoting heavy promotion to an upcoming Guy Fieri project called “El Burro Borracho” (the Drunk Donkey).

Although word at the Rio was that the scientists were not a gambling bunch, conference organizers seemed intent on keeping things lighthearted. The thick convention program was decked out with a poker theme; attendees could purchase AAFS shot glasses or a commemorative T-shirt with a Nevada license plate on the back that read “VIVA 4N6.” A silent auction offered such novelty items as coasters covered with fake blood spatter, a human skull belonging to the victim of a fatal sling-shot, and a T-shirt with a bone on it reading, “I Found This Humerus.” At their comedic best, forensic scientists blend puns with dark humor. One pathologist’s presentation was titled “Chainsaw-Related Fatalities: What Is All the Buzz About?”

For all the outward playfulness, however, a looming tension hung over the conference — the nagging knowledge that all is not well in the world of forensics. Despite the image peddled by popular TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which portray forensic experts as crime-fighting scientists with unparalleled gifts of observation, the field has become increasingly embattled in recent years. Crime labs have come under fire for mishandling evidence, and high-profile exonerations have exposed how “junk science” has sent innocent people to prison. The bad press has led to heightened skepticism of forensics, forcing practitioners to defend their reputation.

2015 was no exception. Soon after the AAFS convened last February under the banner “Celebrating the Forensic Science Family,” a series of controversies cast further scrutiny on the field. There was the abrupt halting of DNA testing in Washington, D.C.’s first independent crime lab — a three-year-old $220 million project whose director was forced to resign amid damning audits. There was the ongoing fallout in Massachusetts over a crime lab chemist who falsified thousands of drug tests over her nine-year career. And there were the usual headlines exposing miscarriages of justice based on junk science: a Texas man freed after 25 years in prison due to bad “bite mark” evidence, and three men exonerated in New York after more than 30 years based on a faulty arson investigation (one died of a heart attack in prison). Among the record number of cleared cases in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 45 involved “false or misleading forensic science.”

But perhaps most devastating, in April 2015, the Justice Department issued a bombshell announcement, formally admitting to a disastrous mishandling of evidence that lawyers, prisoners, and even its own forensic experts had pointed out for years. For more than two decades, as the Washington Post reported, FBI analysts doing hair fiber examination “gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants.” In a post-conviction review of thousands of cases dating before 2000, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had so far discovered exaggerated testimony by FBI analysts in a staggering 95 percent. This included 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom were executed or died in prison before the problems were publicly acknowledged.

For the forensic community — and for the feds, who have trained countless local and state analysts in hair fiber analysis — it was a PR disaster. There was no escaping the crisis at hand. The AAFS had no choice but to confront it. This year, the conference theme was “Transformation: Embracing Change.”

Bad Hair Days

At the opening plenary in the Rio’s Brasilia Ballroom, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates started with the good news. “I’m happy to say that we’re making real progress in our efforts to strengthen the way forensic science is practiced in our laboratories and presented in our courtrooms,” she announced. For the first time in history, Yates said, the Department of Justice had imposed accreditation standards for its labs, requiring that “whenever practicable, DOJ prosecutors use accredited labs when testing evidence.” What’s more, she said, as an incentive to states and localities seeking federal funds, the DOJ would give “a ‘plus factor’ to grant applicants who will use the money to seek accreditation.”

That the federal government’s own crime labs have gone for so long without imposing basic standards and oversight was a grim reminder of what passes for progress in 2016. The move was one of the first recommendations put forward by the National Commission on Forensic Science, formed in 2013 through a partnership between the Obama administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (Yates, a veteran prosecutor and former U.S. attorney in Georgia, serves as the commission’s co-chair.)

The National Commission on Forensic Science itself was the product of a landmark report released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2009, which urged the U.S. government to establish an “independent federal entity” to address deep and widespread problems with the state of forensics. Titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: The Path Forward,” the 254-page study was a wake-up call to the scientific and legal communities, raising major concerns over the way analysts handle the most common and longstanding forms of forensic evidence. The report concluded that nearly every single area of forensic science is plagued by serious questions of scientific validity and reliability. “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis,” the NAS report read, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

In particular, the report criticized branches of forensics known as “pattern-matching” — the analysis of such visual evidence as fingerprints, blood spatter, handwriting, and bite marks — as lacking any actual scientific underpinning. Also called “impression-matching,” these disciplines essentially boil down to a given “expert” eye-balling two or more objects and deciding whether they match — say, a bloody shoe print left at a crime scene and an actual shoe seized from a suspect, or tire marks left on pavement and the tires on a suspect’s car. There are no real standards guiding the interpretation of such visual evidence, so conclusions are based on subjective criteria. In some ways, the process is no more complicated than a child’s picture-matching game.

To say that the NAS report caused great upheaval would be an understatement. Its sharp assessments pulled the rug out from under even the oldest and most venerable disciplines within the forensic science community. Although seven years have passed since its release, in many ways, the field has barely begun to digest it, let alone devise solutions. Today, the NAS report comes up again and again wherever forensics reform is discussed. Vegas was no exception.

Turning to the bad news — the catastrophic revelations about the FBI’s microscopic hair comparison unit — Yates spoke carefully. “It’s clear that, in at least some of the cases reviewed, lab examiners and attorneys either overstated the strength of the forensic evidence or failed to properly qualify the limitations of the forensic analysis,” she said. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that there were problems with the underlying science,” she continued. “It means that the probative value of the scientific evidence wasn’t always properly communicated to juries.”

To guard against such “testimonial overstatement,” Yates said, the FBI would be taking steps to make sure its experts deliver conclusions in court that are “supported by existing science.” Along with a “root cause analysis” of what went wrong with its hair fiber analysis, the DOJ also plans to expand its ongoing review to other forensic practices — “not because of specific concerns with other disciplines,” Yates emphasized, somewhat defensively. But in order to “ensure the public’s ongoing confidence in the work we do.”

Yates did not identify the forensic practices the DOJ plans to assess — the department is just beginning to plan its review. But echoing the NAS report, she cited the “so-called ‘pattern’ or ‘impression’ disciplines” as presenting “unique challenges.” Despite her assurance that the DOJ harbors no particular concerns about any specific disciplines, it seemed clear that these would be first in line. “We’re thinking of it as a forensics ‘stress test,’” Yates said.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Yates’s announcement was swiftly applauded by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who issued a press release praising the DOJ for its review, which would ensure that the “public can learn exactly what went wrong and how we can prevent this from ever happening again. Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system worthy of its name.”

Inside the Rio, it was harder to gauge the immediate reaction — but there was good reason to expect that, for some attendees, the review would not be welcome news. While the theme for the annual AAFS meeting has been consistently upbeat in the years since the NAS report first raised red flags — “The Forensic Sciences: Founded on Observation and Experience, Improved by Education and Research” (2013); “Our Path Forward” (2014) — the response from certain practitioners has been decidedly less so. Particularly among the forensic odontologists who practice bite mark analysis, the reaction has been downright aggressive.

The “science” of bite mark analysis relies on two conceits — first, that human dentition is unique, and second, that human skin is a sufficient and reliable substrate on which to record that uniqueness. The problem is that neither proposition has ever been proven — and the only empirical research attempting to do so has shown neither assumption to be true. Nonetheless, the subjective conclusions of bite mark analysts have been allowed into evidence in criminal cases since the 1950s, when a Texas grocery store burglary was solved with the help of a dentist who matched a suspect’s teeth to a bite mark left in a piece of cheese found at the crime scene.

In the past few decades, as bite mark evidence has been linked to wrongful convictions, there has been growing recognition that there is no real science to support bite mark analysis — including among members of AAFS. This has not gone over well with forensic odontologists. At the 2014 AAFS conference in Seattle, some sessions erupted into near shouting matches, as members of the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) — the discipline’s certifying body — reacted with hostility to presenters sharing research challenging the reliability of bite mark analysis. One researcher was grilled so intensely that he was visibly shaking when he returned to his seat after his presentation (and even after he sat down, the grilling continued, from an odontologist sitting behind him). That same year, at a dinner hosted by the ABFO, a guest named Melissa Morgues — an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and a perfervid defender of bite mark analysis — peppered her talk with nasty personal attacks on a scientist named Mary Bush, who along with her husband, Peter, has conducted critical (and ultimately unflattering) research into bite mark evidence.

Following the Seattle gathering, the ABFO sought to show it had standards guiding its work. Members developed an elaborate “decision tree” to illustrate the process of identifying bite marks and matching them to a specific person’s teeth. But the project backfired: When it came to the first, most basic question on the chart — “Is this a bite mark?” — participating dentists were unable to clear even that initial hurdle. Of 100 case studies reviewed by 39 ABFO-certified bite mark experts, there was agreement on that question just four times. The decision tree’s discomfiting results were presented at the following AAFS conference in Orlando, Florida, in 2015. This time, the odontology sessions were more subdued.

Still, there was drama that year. Adding salt to the ABFO’s wounds, AAFS leadership rejected a bid on the part of the board to banish one of its own members, C. Michael Bowers, a California dentist and attorney. Bowers, a vocal critic of bite mark analysis, had been subjected to a trumped-up ethics complaint brought forward by an unwavering clique of ABFO members who, in part, accused Bowers of changing his expert opinion in a bite mark case in exchange for remuneration. In reality, it was an open secret that the ABFO wished to expel Bowers for the crime of being too outspoken. The saga came to a head in Orlando, where Bowers celebrated the AAFS’s refusal to oust him by sporting a T-shirt with the image of a California license plate that read “XONR8,” and where one ABFO member, Richard Souviron, angrily confronted AAFS President Victor Weedn about the decision to dismiss the complaint, demanding to know, several times, whether Weedn had “any balls.” Yes, Weedn replied, he does. (Weedn told The Intercept that Souviron subsequently apologized.)

Things have not improved for the bite mark matchers. Last year saw a storm of withering criticism in the press, including a four-part series in the Washington Post and an investigative report by The Intercept. In October, a Texas man named Steven Mark Chaney was released after spending 25 years in prison for murder on the testimony of an expert who told jurors that there was only a “one in a million chance” that marks found on the victim could have come from anyone else. Ultimately, a Dallas judge and county prosecutors agreed that Chaney should be freed based on the finding that bite mark analysis is, indeed, junk science. To date, 24 wrongful arrests or convictions have been linked to bite mark evidence; several additional cases are pending before various courts. And on February 12, 2016, less than two weeks before the AAFS conference, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a landmark decision calling for a state moratorium on the use of bite mark evidence unless and until the practice can be scientifically validated. The commission has also ordered a review of every Texas conviction where bite mark evidence was allowed.

If there was reason to believe the bite mark loyalists might arrive in Vegas chastened, or more willing to consider criticism of their field, the odontology sessions at the AAFS conference quickly proved otherwise. Instead of presenting any new research — or even plans for new research that could lead to validation of the practice — bite mark defenders doubled down, stressing the value of the discipline and warning about how frightening a world it would be without it. Many presentations were more like attaboy affirmations, delivered with a side of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) jabs at critics.

In one presentation titled “Bite Marks — Maybe It Is Rocket Science,” Florida dentist Kenneth Cohrn derided the NAS report as more “opinion paper” than scientific document and slammed critics “posing as experts,” including journalists, calling their critiques “opinionated, sensationalized, and not scientific.” One slide featured a prominent picture of Mary and Peter Bush, presenting them as foes who wish to ban bite mark evidence from the courtroom — one of three separate references to the couple during Cohrn’s 15-minute talk. In another presentation, “Scorched Earth Forensics: Why the Move to ‘Eradicate’ Disciplines From the Courtroom Is Bad for Science and Bad for the Law,” Melissa Mourges delivered a heavy dose of righteous indignation. After dissing the NAS report — “not everything” can be tested like a “school science project” — Morgues pointed to forensic psychology as a discipline that is even more subjective than bite mark examination, yet hasn’t been attacked in the same fashion. (Some of her best friends are forensic psychologists, she added, “so I do not want to read in some stupid blog tomorrow that I badmouthed” the field.) Morgues warned that getting rid of bite mark evidence would almost certainly lead to tragic results — by eliminating potentially exculpatory evidence that could actually help criminal defendants and by allowing child abusers to go unpunished. We shouldn’t “throw the abused baby out with the bathwater.”

For a casual observer unaware of the turmoil within the world of forensic odontology, the sessions in Vegas might have seemed impenetrable or inexplicably tense — definitely a little weird. When it was Bowers’s turn to present on the “rise and fall” of bite mark analysis, there was some anticipation that he might face heckling or snide questions from the very colleagues who previously colluded to try to oust him. Instead, the crowd was almost exaggeratedly polite. (“That was kind of disappointing,” one dentist joked afterward.) Yet, outside the room, attendees to his session were greeted at the door by a stack of mysteriously placed excerpts from a Washington Post article exposing the lengths Morgues will go to defend the evidence she relies on in criminal cases. The printed passages showed how she altered a sentence from the NAS report in a court filing in order to suggest that bite mark evidence is scientifically accepted — a blatant mischaracterization of the study, which concluded the opposite is true.

At the lectern, Bowers spoke with a casual air — no hint that this was his big comeback after emerging victorious over the ABFO. Acknowledging that some “people want to discount the NAS report,” he called upon them to “admit and accept” its criticisms and “move on.” Without naming names, he chided previous presenters for blaming critics and the media for their problems. “The public wants to know the truth,” Bowers said. Indeed, there are people whose freedom is at stake — he pointed to the case of Bill Richards, who was convicted of killing his wife based largely on the testimony of two bite mark experts. Those experts have since recanted their testimony and Richards’s case is pending before the California Supreme Court. For Bowers, the Richards case is one of many that raise the question: Don’t defendants have a right to reliable forensic evidence?

Trust Us, We’re Experts

The odontologists’ head-in-the-sand attitude was in sharp contrast to other disciplines represented in Vegas. Consider the fingerprint experts, whose presentations were generally earnest and optimistic — in keeping with the “embracing change” theme of the conference.

There is no more ubiquitous and familiar a forensic practice than that of fingerprint analysis. Its origins go back to the 1800s, and like virtually all areas of forensic science, it was further developed primarily by — and according to the needs of — law enforcement. Also known as “friction ridge” analysis, fingerprint analysis today involves collecting typically partial — and often distorted or “noisy” — latent prints from a crime scene and then matching them to a whole clean print taken from a suspect or victim, or pulled from a database. Although the practice is widely seen as foolproof, it has never been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Nor has there been any kind of standardized training or guidelines for fingerprint examiners — no rules to dictate, for example, how many print details should be considered when contemplating a match. The NAS report noted that “historically,” fingerprints have served as a valuable tool, “both to identify the guilty and to exclude the innocent.” But it also highlighted the “limited information about the accuracy and reliability” of fingerprint analysis, warning that expert claims of “zero error rates are not scientifically plausible.”

Since the release of the NAS report, however, the fingerprint folks have been on their game. Researchers have sought to determine match error rates. Examiners have started to change how they talk about their findings. At the conference, one notably upbeat presenter was Henry Swofford, head of the U.S. Army crime lab’s latent print branch. In two separate sessions, he outlined the issues within the field and shared the solutions his lab had been developing — including reframing the way analysts report and testify on their conclusions (basically, by not claiming that a print can be individualized to a person, which implies 100 percent infallibility). And he described research underway to quantify the degree of correspondence between two impressions and to estimate the likelihood that correspondence could have come from the same source.

Indeed, in acknowledging the previous bad practices among fingerprint analysts, the affable Swofford poked some fun at his own profession — he talked about how he himself had been trained to consider “sufficient” quantities of print detail in determining whether two prints could be matched. “And I thought, yeah, I’m an expert!” But then he realized he was never told what “sufficient” actually meant: “and to date I haven’t been able to find an answer to that question.” Although the lack of specificity and standardization raises troubling questions about how many convictions may have hinged on faulty fingerprint analysis, Swofford said he isn’t certain that it is an issue. In a short post-conference interview, he said that fingerprints have always been considered a “highly discriminating biometric” and nothing arising from current research challenges that. But he was also confident that it would be possible to strengthen the field. Friction ridge analysis is on the “cusp of real change,” he said, and scientists need to work with the legal community to implement reforms. “And I’m looking forward to it.”

To be fair, the bite mark dentists weren’t the only ones not exactly rushing to embrace change in Vegas. In a talk titled “Critics Say the Darndest Things!” presenter Jan Kelly, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, focused mainly on how critics of handwriting analysis are often full of baloney and unfairly lump the practice with the junk science of bite marks and hair microscopy. Not a single wrongful conviction has ever been related to handwriting analysis, Kelly argued, at which point someone in the audience piped up: “Dreyfus!” It was a reference to the 1894 court martial of French army general Alfred Dreyfus, who was erroneously accused of treason based on a handwritten memo that an expert claimed could be positively matched to him. Kelly acknowledged the exception to her statement. But then she pivoted: Was that an Innocence Project case? “No,” she said, answering her own question. (In fact, the National Registry of Exonerations includes at least one wrongful conviction based in part on questionable handwriting analysis.) Of course, a lack of exonerations does not prove a forensic practice is necessarily sound. The NAS report noted that “there may be some value in handwriting analysis,” while warning that “there has been only limited research to quantify the reliability and replicability” of the practice.

In another session, an enthusiastic podiatrist from Indiana, Dr. Michael Nirenberg, stressed the significance of foot-related evidence in solving crimes. “A lot of people don’t think much about feet,” he said. “In forensic podiatry, we always say, ‘You cannot float through a crime scene!’” Although footprints have long been used as evidence by law enforcement, forensic podiatry is a relatively new specialty — it was not even mentioned in the NAS report. Its professional association, the American Society of Forensic Podiatry, was founded in 2003. In a 2008 article for Evidence Technology Magazine, one practitioner drew a distinction between his work and that of a mere “footwear examiner,” explaining that forensic podiatrists evaluate evidence “for the purpose of connecting an individual to footwear or a footprint.”

Indeed, in Vegas, Nirenberg claimed that a forensic podiatrist can link a suspect to wear patterns — the imprints and indentations inside of a shoe. (Performing a “shoe autopsy” helps with such analysis.) An emerging branch of the field, he said, is studying someone’s gait to link the person to a crime. “It’s very exciting,” Nirenberg said.

Forensic podiatry is a good example of a field that has established itself as a forensic discipline despite a thin scientific basis. Last fall, the Boston Review published an article titled “Forensic Pseudoscience,” which singled out the discipline as an illustration of what law professor and forensics expert Daniel Medwed has described as “rogue scientists” who “flourish” in the absence of oversight. Nirenberg and a colleague took umbrage at the article, writing a letter defending the discipline and pointing out that in a courtroom setting, “Experience suggests that where doubts exist as to expertise, this will inevitably come out during cross-examination.”

In response to follow-up questions posed by email, Nirenberg disagreed that his field would be considered among the pattern-matching disciplines questioned by the NAS report. Practitioners rely on sophisticated and detailed knowledge of the foot — “biomechanics, foot type, pathologies, deformities, and so on” — when considering whether a suspect’s and perpetrator’s footprint can be matched. That, of course, sounds much like the process forensic dentists describe when it comes to analyzing bite marks.In Vegas, Nirenberg acknowledged that practitioners need to be careful about the opinions they offer the courts. But, seeking to prove that matches between feet and footprints can be scientifically accurate, he also threw out a wild array of disparate statistics as alleged evidence. A study out of India found footprints were distinct to one in 10,000 people, while a California study put that measure at one in 100,000. He even cited research coming out of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that said the chance of finding a random match for a footprint is one in 1.27 billion. The numbers presented a quandary that was a consistent theme throughout the conference: How can experts express reliability to jurors in the absence of reliable scientific data?

So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist

The AAFS exhibit hall was housed in the Rio’s Amazon ballroom, a massive space filled with conference sponsors, scientific publishers, and purveyors of forensic gadgetry. On the day it opened, a crush of conferencegoers headed straight for the free sandwiches, while others swarmed around the freebies available at various booths. Along with the usual candy and pens, it was a peculiar grab bag of weird stuff: wound measuring charts, evidence bags in various sizes, a clear plastic tube labeled “CONTAMINATED NEEDLES,” and a sperm-shaped stress toy. The exhibit hall also played host to the AAFS’s annual wine and cheese reception; attendees sipped wine amid human X-rays and lab samples with labels like “urine” and “stained money.”

A booth belonging to AAFS displayed a small handbook titled “So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist!” A chapter introducing the “general” section of AAFS described how, as “the academy’s gatekeeper,” members of the section are “always willing to consider accepting new disciplines that develop in response to the needs of the justice system.” It quoted a former AAFS president, writing in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1983: “There is literally no end to the number of disciplines that become ‘forensic’ by definition,” he wrote. “Nor is there an end in sight to the number of present or future specialties that may become forensic. The examples are many.”

The passages illuminated a central problem on display at the conference. For one, there is the bias built into forensics as a whole, in which scientific objectivity is too easily undermined when deployed in the service of law enforcement. But in addition, even as old forensic techniques are called into question for their lack of scientific basis — and even as the human toll of junk science remains unquantifiable — new areas of scientific “expertise” continue to crop up, eventually making their way into court. For lawyers and judges, figuring out how to use such evidence is a daunting task. Defense attorney Chris Fabricant — director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project and a major thorn in the side of bite mark dentists — gives credit to forensic practitioners who have tried to correct their flawed work so that the burden of sorting out junk from legitimate science does not fall to untrained attorneys. “There are many techniques that are moving in the right direction, that are heeding the call of the National Academy of Sciences to rein in their scientifically unsupportable opinions and are rolling up their sleeves and doing basic and applied research,” Fabricant said. “And then there are those who are not, and who refuse to acknowledge the scientific realities.”

For members of AAFS’s jurisprudence section, the practical problem of how to use certain forensic evidence in court — if at all — was a constant theme in Vegas. Every day, in courtrooms across the country, judges act as “gatekeepers” in deciding what kind of evidence to allow. Yet few are equipped to determine whether a given forensic expert is sound in his or her analysis. “Why do we tolerate lawyers that don’t understand the science they’re using?” said one speaker, herself a sitting judge. “Why do we tolerate judges who are willfully science-phobic? I speak of myself, too.” Like many of her colleagues, the judge joked, she had done her best to avoid science throughout her schooling career. The same sentiment was echoed in a separate session by a defense attorney from the Twin Cities, who has since found herself navigating a massive crime lab scandal that has cast doubt on scores of convictions.

In his own presentation, Fabricant laid out the absurd reality. When it comes to the assessment of courtroom evidence, it is too often a matter of the blind leading the blind. “We have scientifically illiterate judges, scientifically illiterate lawyers, and scientifically illiterate jurors,” Fabricant said. These are the people determining “whether forensic science is valid and reliable science.”

A number of sessions set out to grapple with this problem. In a presentation titled “Better Ways to Manage Poorly Validated Scientific Evidence,” Michael Saks, a professor of law and psychology at Arizona State University, shared specific suggestions, some of which are already underway — labs should be accredited and examiners certified; evidence should be blind tested, so that an examiner knows only as much about the case as is necessary for testing. (We’re “used to blind tests at county fairs,” Saks noted. Why not also in forensic labs?) Judges must constrain forensic testimony to what is scientifically known in each field — and jurors should be instructed on the limitations of any given field.

Such safeguards, of course, do not solve the deeper problem of poorly validated forensics itself — that project is ultimately up to the broader scientific community. Throughout the conference, a great deal of focus was devoted to the burgeoning process of developing rules and standards for forensic disciplines, which, if done right, will provide desperately needed guidance to lawyers and judges for gauging the reliability of forensic evidence. But it was not always clear that these standards were being designed with the practical needs of the legal community in mind.

Opening the criminalistics presentations of AAFS, Section Chair John Lentini — a chemist, author, and fire investigator who has done heroic work exposing faulty arson convictions — introduced the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC), a project of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The launch of OSAC was the “happiest news” Lentini had to share about the past year. “People are actually going to write up some standards,” he exclaimed, somewhat wryly. It would be hard to overstate the scale and scope of this project. Its goal, according to NIST, is “to support the development and promulgation of forensic science consensus documentary standards and guidelines, and to ensure that a sufficient scientific basis exists for each discipline.” Explaining its structure, John Paul Jones II, associate director for OSAC affairs, displayed a color-coded, multi-pronged chart resembling a molecular map, showing a dizzying array of categories and committees, each containing subcategories and subcommittees. More than 540 members make up the committees, from scientists to government workers to private-sector experts. Following a multilayered approval process, each standard and guideline will be placed on a registry — ideally a one-stop-shop for information on forensic best practices.

The OSACs appear to have been met with a mix of anticipation and dread. One slide showed the iconic hands-on-the-TV image from the horror movie Poltergeist, reading: “OSAC Registries: They’re here.” In February, after months of deliberation, NIST published its very first OSAC standard, by the subcommittee on controlled substances. It lays out the minimum criteria for identification of seized drugs — an “essential first step” toward improving chemical analysis of controlled substances. For a limited time, Jones explained, NIST would grant free web access to the standard — along with future ones — to law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, and other stakeholders. (On its website, NIST says the standards will be free for up to two years. But currently, the link providing access yields an error message.)

It was hard to understand why, as a government-funded project, the standards should cost money at all — especially since that would discourage anyone with a limited budget from using them. In the ballroom next door to the OSAC presentation, members of the jurisprudence section were struggling with how to better educate themselves on forensics. During a discussion on how to introduce forensics into the law school curriculum, one criminal defense attorney noted that every year, the AAFS conference presents impressive information when it comes to “grants, standards, and accreditation” — work that “produces excellence in forensic science.” But when he gets to court afterward, it is a rude awakening. If such work doesn’t get back to lawyers and judges, he warned, “It is all for naught.”

The Duty to Correct

On March 21, the National Commission on Forensic Science met in Washington, D.C. There, Yates spoke once more about the planned review by the DOJ. “The goal is to start a conversation,” she told members. “And to get your input on the best path forward.” The head of the DOJ Office of Legal Policy, Jonathan Wroblewski, then laid out some of the questions at hand. “It begins with which disciplines — which ones we should be looking at. How do we select the cases? What are the standards by which we should be testing the testimony that was given in those closed cases? Who should be conducting this review?” Although much remains to be seen, Wroblewski said, “We think that initially, we should be considering disciplines that require forensic professionals to compare two items, then to make judgments about the similarities and differences.” He echoed what Yates said in Vegas. “This is about quality assurance. It’s not about the fact that we have any kind of suspicions as to particular disciplines in forensic science.”

The DOJ review is just the beginning of a process that until now, has been almost completely overlooked — and was barely mentioned in Vegas. For all the talk of moving forward and embracing change, the AAFS conference spent precious little time addressing a different imperative — the need to look backward. Or, as lawyers like Fabricant call it, the “duty to correct.” Indeed, as errors and deficiencies in forensics are acknowledged, so too should be the cases in which those deficiencies and errors were allowed into evidence.

Until the FBI’s recent inquiry into hair microscopy cases, such work was done in a scattershot way, mostly at the state level. The Texas Forensic Science Commission, for example, has facilitated a review of dozens of old arson convictions — a process jointly handled by the Innocence Project of Texas in partnership with the state’s fire marshal — and is now embarking on the bite mark case review. But the review of potential wrongful convictions is largely left to a patchwork of modestly funded innocence projects, law school innocence clinics, and to a small number of conviction integrity units within prosecutors’ offices. (If there is any glaring blind spot in the NAS report, it is likely the failure to address the impact that faulty forensics may have had on a large number of criminal cases. The report acknowledges the troubling way forensics are vetted by judges and lawyers for admission into evidence, but notes only that this demonstrates a “tremendous need for the forensic science community to improve.”)

Generally, the criminal justice system favors finality — a virtue that has been reinforced in recent decades through legislation and expansion of certain legal doctrine, including the concept of “harmless error” — where mistakes during a criminal trial are acknowledged upon review, but ultimately shrugged off as not having impacted the outcome of the case. In short, it is a standard of expediency — and an example of the difference between law and science. Although science is founded on the principle of perpetual inquiry, the legal system prefers the proposition of one-and-done.

The system is simply not designed to facilitate any meaningful wide-ranging review — and more often than not, state actors fight tooth and nail against reopening old cases. Today, there is no way to ensure that every potential wrongful conviction tied to faulty forensics will be identified or remedied. Take, for example, the experience of the defense attorney from the Twin Cities. Even in the face of glaring failures by the state’s crime lab, she said, some prosecutors refused to cooperate with her to reassess the cases impacted by the lab’s incompetence.

Yet, the sheer power of forensic evidence makes such reviews crucial. As the AAFS conference came to a close, Fabricant shared the story of George Perrot, a man released from prison in February. Perrot spent more than two decades incarcerated for the 1985 rape of a 78-year-old Massachusetts woman. Although the woman repeatedly insisted to police that Perrot was not her assailant — he didn’t look at all like her attacker — the then-17-year-old was nonetheless convicted based largely on the testimony of an FBI hair examiner who said a single hair found in the victim’s bed was a match to Perrot. Perrot was sentenced to life in prison. If it weren’t for the FBI’s comprehensive hair microscopy case review, he would still be in prison. The power of forensic evidence in this case was enough to supersede the victim’s insistence that they had the wrong man, Fabricant pointed out. “I find that truly horrifying.”


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