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Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
FBI faulted for refusing to admit blunder
By Blaine Harden
"To disagree was not an expected response" within the FBI's bureaucratic culture, according to a report on the panel's findings. It said that once a supervisor in the agency's fingerprint unit had wrongly identified a print from the bombing investigation in Spain, "it became increasingly difficult for others in the agency" to tell him he had made a mistake.
The FBI assembled the seven-member panel of international experts in June to explore the reasons for the arrest of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland-area lawyer and convert to Islam. The arrest proved a major embarrassment in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
The report was published in the November-December issue of the Journal of Forensic Identification. The Justice Department also is investigating the case.
FBI agents detained Mayfield, 38, in connection with train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 and injured 2,000. Spanish investigators ultimately linked the bombing to al-Qaida and the mistaken fingerprint to an Algerian man, prompting the FBI to release Mayfield, who had been held for two weeks on a material-witness warrant. The FBI has apologized for "the hardships this matter has caused."
The FBI blamed its error, in part, on the poor quality of digital fingerprint images provided by Spanish authorities.
"All of the committee members agree that the quality of the images that were used to make the erroneous identification was not a factor," according to a synopsis of the panel's findings written by Robert Stacey, head of the quality-assurance unit for the FBI's laboratory division.
His report added that when Spanish officials said the FBI was wrong, the fingerprint unit "immediately entered into a defensive posture."
Mayfield sued the federal government last month, alleging his rights were violated because of his faith. Gerry Spence, a Wyoming lawyer and the lead plaintiff's attorney in the case, has not said how much money Mayfield is seeking in damages.
The civil suit alleges the FBI had access to biographical information on Mayfield before its erroneous fingerprint match.
Steven Wax, who was Mayfield's criminal lawyer in the spring, said Monday that the panel's report is "tremendously significant" because it points to systemic problems with the FBI's fingerprint-analysis techniques.
But Wax said the panel did not explore whether FBI knowledge of Mayfield's life his Muslim faith or his work as a defense attorney for a Portland man who admitted trying to help the Taliban in Afghanistan might have predisposed the agency to use subjective fingerprint analysis as a way of linking Mayfield to the Madrid bombings.
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