WASHINGTON Here's a science question for you. When does an ounce of lead differ from another ounce of lead?
Answer: When it is being tested in an FBI laboratory.
Oops, my mistake. When it USED to be tested in an FBI laboratory for the purpose of identifying from which gun it was fired.
That's no longer the case. But how can that be? Well, because it never was valid science and the FBI never told anyone even after abandoning the process as a tool for convicting people. Given the FBI's proclivity for ignoring its own mistakes, that isn't terribly surprising. After all, it might mean freeing someone who wasn't guilty and that really would be embarrassing.
So what it did, apparently, was send out letters saying it stood behind the science when it really didn't. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? It doesn't? You're just being picky. Those convicted on the basis of the famed national police force's nitwit testimony probably had done something bad anyway and deserved to be where they are mainly in prison. Why else would the geniuses at the J. Edgar Hoover Building be involved in the first place? They always go after the right guy and sometimes catch him or her, particularly when they are invited into a case after someone else has mostly solved it.
Now the Democratic chairman of the activist Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wants a list of all those convicted when the lead theory was used. That would indicate that perhaps he intended to make an issue out of this latest bureau travesty just one of any number to plague the Teflon-coated FBI since Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered it had ignored even its own agents' suspicions that something was amiss with a bunch of Middle Easterners who were taking flying lessons.
Don't be fooled, however. If the past is prologue, as we have been led to believe, Leahy's sinister request means very little. Nothing much has happened about the wasting of $170 million worth of taxpayer money for a failed computer system, or the misuse of national security letters to get into the files of thousands of Americans, or the fact that one of the bureau's own was probably one of the two worst traitors in American history, or that to protect informants, an agent here or there has condoned some pretty nasty crimes.
You see, ever since Hoover's vaunted propaganda machine convinced Americans of the infallibility of his organization, Congress has chosen to excuse any FBI indiscretion, doling out huge chunks of money whenever asked to hunt down the bad guys, real or imagined. One has to understand that in the early days much of this fawning by lawmakers was done out of abject fear. It had to do with those fabled Hoover secret files. But even when Hoover died and the files, if they ever existed, disappeared, the habit of buying into the bureau's mythology was so ingrained it couldn't be broken. At least, that is the way it seems.
If they messed up at Waco, it was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' fault. If they shot an innocent woman holding a baby at Ruby Ridge, it was the ATF's fault. If they continuously failed to catch the Grinch at Christmas, it was the ATF's fault. Nod your collective heads in agreement, members of Congress.
Therefore, the great lead caper probably will be just one of those slow-news-day dramas that will result in a "don't do that again, fellows" slap on the wrist, followed by an appropriation for another 500 agents.
If there is any redemption here, it is that not everyone was interested in keeping the lid on this fine mess. The head of the lab, whose suspicions led him to blow the whistle on this faux science, which was supposed to be able to determine that a lead pellet without discernible markings came from a specific weapon, was outvoted when he tried to make certain justice was done. But at least he tried.Have at it, Leahy and company, but all those guys who may be innocent shouldn't get their hopes up for new trials. Nothing much ever sticks to the G-men. Rat-a-tat-tat.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.