Thomas Thurman

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Former FBI Special Agent Thomas Thurman
BornJames Thomas Thurman
Richmond, Kentucky
Alma materEastern Kentucky University

Thomas "Tom" Thurman was born in the late 1940s to Margaret and James "Spider" Thurman.[1] He graduated in 1969 from Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in political science. Having spent most of the 1970s serving in the US Army - according to the 1998 book Tainting Evidence, Tom Thurman began to gravitate towards explosives work "as an officer commanding an ammunitions company in Korea." Thurman joined the FBI in 1977 and, within four years, had worked up to the elite Explosives Unit of the FBI’s Crime Laboratory.[2]

On 13 September 1995, the FBI’s forensic department was the subject of an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) programme which was focused on a memorandum from the former head of explosive science, Dr Frederic Whitehurst. It was a devastating indictment of his colleague Tom Thurman's investigation of a terrorist attack in which a Judge was killed by pipe bombs. In 1997, as a result of a review by the US Inspector General, Michael Bromwich, into many other criminal cases, Tom Thurman was barred from scientific investigations and from being called as an expert witness. Bromwich had discovered that Thurman had no formal scientific qualifications and that he had been "circumventing procedures and protocols, testifying to areas of expertise that he had no qualifications in . . . therefore fabricating evidence."[3]

In a December 2008 interview at Arlington National Cemetery for the May 2009 Dutch documentary film "Lockerbie Revisited", Thurman denied having been sacked, maintaining instead that he had simply "retired" from the FBI laboratory.[4]

Lockerbie bombing

Tom Thurman’s work on the Lockerbie bombing case was the first big thing in his career which started with an examination of the debris of Pan Am Flight 103 within days of the crash on 21 December 1988. Thurman also sat in on FBI agent Edward Marshmann's interview in November 1989 of suspected bomb-maker Marwan Khreesat in Amman, Jordan.

Focus on Libya

In June 1990 Tom Thurman made the crucial bomb timer identification for the Lockerbie case, thus putting the focus on Libya.[5] The MEBO MST-13 bomb timer fragment was identified, thanks to Thurman's knowing people - like a mysterious CIA analyst who made the match possible. After the resulting 1991 indictments of the two Libyans, Megrahi and Fhimah, Thurman gained much wider media fame, most notably as ABC News' "Person of the Week", telling the show: "I love putting the bad guys away."

Somewhere in there, Thurman also helped French investigators led by Jean-Louis Bruguière identify another "signature," a piece of circuit board from the September 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772 - leading again to Libya.[6]

The post PT/35(b) move claims covered the interviews revealed in the 2009 documentary film Lockerbie Revisited that showed a contradiction in whether the fragment of circuit board, PT/35(b), was ever taken to the United States. FBI Lockerbie chief Richard Marquise and the identifying FBI special agent Tom Thurman both told interviewer Gideon Levy that the fragment was brought to Washington and examined there. Conversely, British authorities and Marquise (after a short-lived change of memory) refuted the claim, insisting it stayed in the UK.[7]

It appears now that it did indeed cross the pond, without proper documentation. While this unacknowledged movement is unusual, the ultimate relevance of it remains unclear. Some have speculated the thing might have been "tampered with" or altered while in America. But probably the worst that was done with PT/35(b) was when it was planted in the evidence chain the previous year.

What we have in Thurman's case, with or without the actual piece of evidence, was the crucial identification. And one point that's consistent throughout is that he held a photo only when he found the match. The question at hand is how long did it take him to find it, and to determine its meaning vis-à-vis who carried out the Lockerbie bombing?

Thurman's green light

On 10 January 1990, new Senior Investigating Officer Stuart Henderson (who replaced John Orr) presented at a meeting of investigators in the UK. He did not openly mention the circuit board fragment PT/35(b), an amazing find UK investigators had been puzzling over for four months. But off to the side, he told FBI chief investigator Richard Marquise about it, Marquise says in his 2006 book.[8] He expressed interest in helping find a match, but Henderson insisted on going it alone. "This decision cost us six months," writes Marquise.

It was at a later conference in Virginia, on 11 June 1990, when Marquise relates how the Scots finally made their puzzlement known to all, having blindly checked 55 companies to no avail.[9] Given the opening, Special Agent Thurman "approached Henderson and asked if he could take photographs of PT/35 and attempt to identify it. Henderson, who believed the Scots had done all they could do, agreed" [1, p. 60]. This passage is crucial to move claims, and rather ambiguous. It seems to read that Thurman was allowed to snap a picture of evidence SIO Henderson had there with him. Then perhaps it means he took some of the prints they had brought. Either way, he walked away with a picture or pictures of this crucial and curious evidence, a half-inch square, perfectly readable, mammoth of implausibility. The "forensic explosives expert" didn't balk at it, just ran with it. Or, crawled, as he suggests.

"Months" or 2-4 Days?

A 1991 Miami Herald article, based on an interview with Thurman, reported that he had "meticulously compared the picture of the fragment to hundreds of other devices," a lengthy-sounding process. Affirming this in 2008, Thurman himself told the adoring Air Crash Investigation: [10]

"I spent, uh, months, literally, looking through all about the files of the FBI on other examinations that we had, uh, conducted over many many many years. […] After a period I just ran out of leads. And at that point I said, okay now we need to go outside the physical FBI laboratory."

And it was there, in a CIA facility, that Thurman found the long-sought answer.

But Marquise said: "What Thurman did yielded fruit within two days.[…] Henderson and his colleagues were on an airplane headed back to Scotland" when Thurman set to work. They had barely settled back in at home before his efforts "would turn Henderson around quicker than he ever imagined," putting him back stateside, along with electronics fiend Alan Feraday, within 24 hours of the discovery. [1, p60]

Further evidence against Thurman’s "months" claim is his own well-memorised "day that I made the identification," recalling it as one would a wedding anniversary: 15 June 1990. He had four days tops to get this gruelling season of cross-checking out of the way after the 11 June 1990 conference (perhaps a multi-day event) where Marquise has him first learning of the thing.

CIA expert "Orkin"

What Thurman did, Marquise sums up, is know where to look. He took the timer fragment photo to a CIA explosives and timers expert code-named John Scott Orkin (real name Jack Christie) who testified under the name "Orkin" at Camp Zeist. Thurman mentions him only as an unnamed "contact" in the 2008 ACI interview. From the vast photo files on hand, "Orkin" helped locate an obvious fit with the blow-up of PT/35(b). If you were Tom Thurman and knew about John Orkin, would you waste even one afternoon scrounging in the FBI's files, or go right to him? (The then Director of the CIA – William H. Webster – was the previous director of the FBI, a unique situation in history).[11]

Nothing specifies this match-up was achieved in only one visit on a single day, but that makes the most sense, as does starting right there. That would give us no more than "hours, literally" to describe the search duration. And either way we're at the point of days at most.

The matching circuit board was found in a timer confiscated in the West African nation state Togo in 1986. This device, assembled in a small plastic case, was physically available for Thurman to look at. He was given permission to take it apart and examine the main board inside. Upon confirming again the obvious similarities, "within a few minutes, literally, I started getting cold chills," he told Air Crash Investigation. He's also described as declaring "I have you now!" [1 p60] and other variations. In a 2010 interview, he said "I could not believe it under any circumstances, and it was there."[12]

That he got these chills only after getting access to the CIA’s special stores is noteworthy, and the Agency is right to claim much of the credit, as they have in places. An AFIO newsletter from just after the Zeist verdict purred that "the CIA’s most important contribution in helping secure the conviction" was "when a CIA engineer was able to identify the timer […] shifting the focus of the probe from a Palestinian terrorist group to Libya."[13] (This report's oblique reference to the CIA's less brilliant offering, Majid Giaka, is also worth a read.)

As the overall story tells it, this was clearly a collaborative CIA-FBI effort, via Thurman and "Orkin", that neither side can claim sole credit for. And without this coming together, we're to infer, the naming of this planted piece of Libyan black magic would be delayed or impossible for both Scottish and American investigators. The power of cooperation, between intelligence and law enforcement, and across the Atlantic - a running theme of the Pan Am Flight 103 investigation - is nicely illustrated here.[14]

Slow link to MEBO

Besides the Togo unit, the CIA knew about a 1988 French seizure of two MEBO MST-13s found in Senegal, in possession of Libyan operatives. (If I'm not mistaken, one of the Senegal timers held in Paris had gone missing by this time.) But Thurman at the CIA facility makes it seem like this was a mystery device he had to analyse from scratch.

A smaller circuit board within the Togo timer's box featured four partially scratched-out characters. Thurman explained to ABC News in 1991, just after the indictments were issued, how he and others laboured over this, contacting numerous manufacturers trying to identify "M580" for some time. They finally accepted that it said MEBO, the name of a known Swiss firm supplying timers to rogue governments, including Libya. Thurman told ABC they had "some inkling that’s what it was from the beginning, but we didn’t want to say okay, it’s MEBO’s exclusive, anything else, until we were absolutely certain." Then they decided it was definitely MEBO’s exclusive for Libya only and only usable by Libyans and unable to fall into anyone else’s hands. Except the CIA and their French counterparts, obviously!

And we're to believe the CIA hadn't already managed to trace these African timers to their Swiss makers? A company suspected of their own CIA links, and documented as trying to implicate the Libyans to them since January 1989? Thurman was left to puzzle over those four characters himself? That's hard to believe. Mr "Orkin" could surely have told him these African timers were made by MEBO and supplied by Libya. This "M580" search is quite likely a made-up story, full of needless rigour and theatrics, and again suggestions of long expanses of time.

On top of the fictional months-long search at FBI before turning to the CIA, this little final touch of reported caution belies the focus and speed beneath the whole June transaction. Nine months of dead-end searches in Scotland were trumped within four days by Thurman's knowledge of just the man to talk to. It also goes against the hint he gave in his ABC interview on 15 November 1991, the day after indictments were issued against the two Libyans, boasting that he had identified the piece of circuit board as part of a timing device that might have been sold to Libyan Airlines staff:

"I made the identification and I knew at that point what it meant. And because, if you will, I am an investigator as well as a forensic examiner, I knew where that would go. At that point we had no conclusive proof of the type of timing mechanism that was used in the bombing of 103. When that identification was made of the timer I knew that we had it."

The whole country had just learned that it went right to Tripoli.[15]

More to the point, Thurman is a political scientist rather than a scientific one. His main skill here is knowing people, CIA types. One can be excused for wondering if Special Agent Thurman knew where it would go even before Orkin told him, or before he got his hands on that picture to bring over.

In 1993, Louis Freeh took over as FBI Director, and shortly after promoted Tom Thurman to head the Explosives Unit. From that perch he had a major role in the investigation of the truly epic 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. However, because of allegations of misbehaviour in this and earlier cases, Thurman was drummed out of the Crime Lab only two years later, in 1997. His "early retirement" was triggered almost solely by the efforts of one tenacious analyst - Dr Frederic Whitehurst - and the Inspector-General’s investigation that eventually followed.[16]

Silent witness

Not surprisingly, Tom Thurman was not called as a star witness, or a witness of any kind, at the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist of the two accused Libyans. As of 2000, according to an EKU biography, Thurman has been teaching courses at Eastern Kentucky University, where the elder James "Spider" Thurman was once an alumni director (knows people ... spider ... web?). Thurman Junior is now an associate professor of Loss Prevention and Safety, teaching in the Fire, Arson, and Explosion Investigations Program. He wrote a book, published in 2006 "Practical Bomb Scene Investigation." (500 pp, $89.95), and told an EKU newsletter that, besides the two-year writing, "technically, I’ve been working on this book for 30 years, with the experience I gained over that time."

Note: BBC Dispatches program, first aired December 1998, interviewed Thurman at EKU, where "he now teaches explosives investigation" (18:36). The criticism of the timer board differences they put to him is pure hogwash. Thurman comes out looking smart compared to Major Owen Lewis (16:40).[17]

UTA Flight 772

Juge Jean-Louis Bruguière focused the UTA Flight 772 investigation on Libya

On 19 September 1989, UTA Flight 772 (a French airlines DC-10) exploded in mid-air over the Sahara Desert region of Ténéré killing 170. French examining magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière, took charge of the investigation which initially was focused on various Palestinian groups with links to Syria and Iran, since scientific analysis of the UTA wreckage showed that the bomb technology matched that used by a Palestinian terrorist organisation. However, in the Summer of 1990, following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis and the decision by Syria and Iran to join the anti-Iraq coalition, the United States persuaded Bruguière to abandon those leads and concentrate on Libyan responsibility instead. In pursuing Libyan involvement the investigators had to rely on extremely fragile testimony by a Congolese national, Bernard Yanga, in Brazzaville who was believed to be an agent of his country’s security services. Yanga’s testimony was inconsistent with the scientific evidence, which had pointed to the “15 May Organisation” and thus in all likelihood to Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Additional scientific evidence would therefore be necessary to strengthen Yanga’s accusations against Libya.

Thurman to the rescue

One man came rushing to the aid of Bruguière: James Thomas Thurman, an FBI special agent assigned to the Bureau’s prestigious Explosives Unit. This unit was responsible for determining the origin of bombs and explosives used in terrorist incidents. Tom Thurman had worked on all the major American terrorist incidents since joining the police crime lab in 1981. His interest in bombs, explosives and weaponry dated from his time in Korea, where he headed a weapons factory. Thurman was not the kind of man to waste his time behind a microscope, and many of his colleagues have been bitterly critical of this. One of them, Dr Frederic Whitehurst of the FBI’s Scientific Analysis Section (SAS), complained in a memo to his superiors that Thurman had fabricated evidence in order to prove the guilt of Walter Leroy Moody (an American “serial bomber”) while working on another case being investigated concurrently with the Lockerbie bombing incident. Thurman’s misbehaviour was substantiated in several other cases and resulted in his suspension from the FBI in 1997.[18] Thurman always tried to arrive quickly at the site of any bombing and, much like a bloodhound, begin his search for evidence. For instance, two days after the Pan Am 747 went down over Lockerbie, he was bustling about the wreckage, making contacts with both the Scottish police and his CIA counterparts. The Americans saw a real go-getter in action, high on the adrenalin rush he felt during his dramatic investigations.

“You can’t sleep,” said the new Superman. “We’re the blacksmiths of the FBI. The nuts and bolts. We get extremely dirty, actually, filthy dirty.”

Thurman’s approach was anything but scientific. He manufactured opinions or heard them on the grapevine, and then tried to “prove” them scientifically. Working alongside his CIA colleagues on the Lockerbie and UTA bombings, he was aware that the CIA suspected Libyan involvement in both cases despite the evidence pointing to the PFLP-GC.

Help from the CIA

The CIA provided Thurman with information that showed unmistakeable signs of Libyan involvement. On Saturday 10 March 1984, at 12.35 pm, a UTA DC-8 operating as flight 772 connecting Brazzaville, Bangui, N’Djamena and Paris exploded at N’Djamena airport in Chad. Twenty-five people were injured, one of whom died several months later. This incident came on the heels of a statement by Gaddafi in which he wondered if the French “were ready to wage another Algerian war in Chad”. Libya decided to harass France, which sent 3,000 soldiers to Chad as part of Operation Manta. Libya wanted to demonstrate that despite the French military presence, security could not be assured in a sensitive location like an airport, located more than 1,500 km from the “red line” on Chad’s 16th parallel. The French intelligence services concluded that Libyan involvement was “very probable”. The suitcase containing the explosives was most likely loaded onto the aircraft in Bangui (Central African Republic), checked in under the fictitious name of Saïd Youris. In reality, Youris was one Al Masri, who had been observed in March 1985 in Cotonou (Benin) working within the highly active Libyan Peoples' Bureau. The French foreign intelligence service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), conveyed its findings to the CIA. Most significantly, Thurman was given access to a special CIA dossier that the Americans used to direct the Congolese military security forces towards the trail leading to Libya. This case pertains to the 20 February 1988 arrest at Dakar airport of two Libyans, Mohammed Marzouk, alias Mohammed Naydi, and Mansour Omran Saber. The men were in possession of two MST-13 timers, part of an order that Libya had placed with the Swiss firm MEBO. They were also carrying Semtex and nine kilos of plastic explosives. The men spent four months in prison and were then released.

TY timer fragment

Thurman had been working on photos of all the UTA wreckage found in a 50 sq km area of the Ténéré Desert; this evidence was placed under special judicial seal № 4. In the Summer of 1991, unbeknownst to Bruguière and Claude Calisti, an expert from the Prefecture of Police crime laboratory, Thurman identified a small piece of printed circuit board, green in colour and measuring 4 sq cm, bearing the marking TY. Without notifying the French authorities, the FBI detectives began following the TY trail, the trademark of the Taiwanese firm Taiyoun, which manufactured 120,000 such timers in 1988, of which 20,000 were for the German firm Grässlin, based in Freiburg. The FBI then pored over Grässlin’s client list of some 350 names before singling one of them: Hans Peter Wüst, a German national who had travelled to Libya in November 1988 and met with Issa al-Shibani, who had asked if Wüst could provide him with timers that could run on direct current using a nine or 12 volt power supply and which were intended for the night-time illumination of airfields in the desert. Upon returning to Germany, Wüst contacted the Steinmetz company about modifying the batteries, which were not sufficiently powerful, and this was arranged. Wüst told the FBI that he delivered the timers to Tripoli on 20 July 1989. The FBI quickly concluded that Libya had indeed purchased the TY timer, which had been the retarding agent in the Samsonite luggage on board the DC-10. Thurman thus discovered the scientific evidence implicating Libya in both the Lockerbie and Ténéré incidents.

Immediately after receiving Thurman’s report on 15 October 1991, Calisti notified Bruguière, who was pleased to have formal evidence supporting Yanga’s testimony and scientifically proving the Libyan connection. “Formal proof of Libyan culpability” was supplied by the FBI, which worked on the top-secret photographs of the tiny piece of circuit board used to detonate the suitcase bomb, as Jean-Marie Pontault passionately proclaimed on both Le Point’s front page and in his book. Neither Bruguière nor Pontault was worried by the belated yet timely arrival of this evidence, more than two years after the bombing. Bruguière’s bill of indictment included the FBI’s findings in their entirety but made no mention of the French specialists’ objections to these conclusions. Thurman’s assertions, however, spurred two French counter-inquiries, one by the 6th Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire (DCPJ) and the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), and the other by the Prefecture of Police crime laboratory.

No trace of explosives residue

The Prefecture of Police crime laboratory’s conclusions were definitive:

“It cannot be established that our timer fragment came from either the first batch purchased by the Freiburg factory or the second batch modified by the Libyan.”

A French Interior Ministry internal memorandum, dated 10 March 1993, was equally categorical:

“The investigations pertaining to the fragment of printed circuit board found in the wreckage of the DC-10 and which may have come from the timer that caused the explosion have been completed. These investigations, conducted in 1992 in both Taiwan and Germany, have not enabled us to determine that the fragment came from the shipment of 101 timers ordered by the Libyan Issa al-Shibani.”

Nor does Bruguière mention the Prefecture of Police crime lab’s counter-inquiry, conducted in Spring 1993 under Calisti’s direction after the FBI investigation had been completed. Following the release of Thurman’s report, the circuit board fragment - the “evidence” - had been removed from judicial seal № 4, under which all the debris had been gathered, placed under special seal № 4/4 and then examined thoroughly. Calisti, considered one of the world’s leading explosives experts, offered this conclusion: the fragment provided by the FBI may have come from a timer similar to the one the FBI had presented to Bruguière (ie the same timer purchased by Libya), but in no way could the fragment have come from the timer used to detonate the suitcase bomb. Calisti and his team found no trace of explosives residue on the timer fragment.

How could the bomb’s retarding agent show no molecular trace of its exposure to penthrite during an explosion of such magnitude? Using complicated methods, the FBI tried to allay the doubts of its French counterparts by demonstrating that other areas close to the bomb showed no trace of explosives; according to the FBI, the deformations on the circuit board fragment were unquestionably due to the blast effect! According to Calisti, the timer fragment did not constitute scientific evidence of Libyan involvement; his familiarity with the Abu Ibrahim Faction’s bomb-making techniques also helped him arrive at this conclusion. Indeed, the TY timer could not have fitted into the suitcase bomb because the timer was much too large. The Prefecture of Police crime lab thus stuck to its guns. Despite his certainty, Calisti had the debris under judicial seal № 4 examined under a microscope in the hopes of finding another circuit board fragment on which the blast effect could be observed; this important test also proved unsuccessful.

Fabricated evidence accusation

According to investigative journalist Pierre Péan:

"It is striking to note the similarity of the 'scientific' evidence discovered by the FBI's Tom Thurman in both the Lockerbie and UTA cases. Of the tens of thousands of pieces of debris collected at each disaster site, one lone piece of printed circuit was found and, miracle of miracles, in each case the fragment bore markings that allowed for positive identification: MEBO in the Lockerbie case and TY in the case of UTA Flight 772. Despite the common findings of the DCPJ, the DST and the Prefecture of Police crime laboratory, Juge Bruguière chose to believe Thurman, the expert in fabricating evidence."[19]

Fitted up for the crime

Abdullah al-Senussi "convicted of war crimes" in July 2015 and sentenced to death

French investigators led by Juge Bruguière obtained a confession from one of the alleged terrorists, Bernard Yanga, a Congolese opposition figure, who had helped recruit a fellow dissident to smuggle the bomb onto the aircraft. This confession led to charges being brought against six Libyans:

  • Abdullah al-Senussi, brother-in-law of Muammar Gaddafi, and deputy head of Libyan intelligence;
  • Abdullah Elazragh, Counsellor at the Libyan embassy in Brazzaville;
  • Ibrahim Naeli and Arbas Musbah, explosives experts in the Libyan secret service;
  • Issa Shibani, the secret agent who purchased the timer that allegedly triggered the bomb; and,
  • Abdelsalam Hammouda, Senussi's right-hand man, who was said to have coordinated the attack.

In 1999, they were put on trial in the Paris Assize Court for the bombing of UTA Flight 772. Because Gaddafi would not allow their extradition to France, Abdullah al-Senussi and the other five Libyans were tried and convicted in absentia, and sentenced to life imprisonment.[20]


On the face of it, all these things suggest a seriously qualified and professional expert, but sources vary widely. Some of those who have worked with Thurman pan his credentials. Dr Ludwig De Braeckeleer interviewed two of these, including the afore-mentioned Whitehurst, for an excellent 2008 article. "Thurman holds an undergraduate degree in political science and I hold a PhD in chemistry," Whitehurst told De Braeckeleer. "Thurman was not recognised by the FBI or anyone else as having expertise in complex chemical analysis and I was."

The other cited critic is William Tobin, a former FBI forensic analyst who played a key role in determining the cause of the crash of TWA 800 and, after retirement, discredited a decades-old forensic technique used to put away many people. To De Braeckeleer, Tobin said in part:

"I put no credence into any scientific or technical conclusions rendered by anyone without a suitable scientific background for that matter, until I can make an independent evaluation. Thurman was a history or political science major to my recollection […] His habit, as with most Explosives Unit examiners with whom I interacted […] was to seek someone else’s expertise and then present it as his own in a courtroom without attribution."

Tobin specifically mentioned attempts at "bail-outs," where Thurman asked for his advice to bolster something he wasn't able to support on his own. And he does seem a bit dense when left on his own for the numerous news cameras he’s so unafraid of. He looks like a former football player who was able to score 'C's in class, but really just loves to blow things up, A beefy fellow with a slightly shy manner, cop-like moustache, and a mild, good-natured Tennessee twang. He's got a clumsy trying-to-sound-smart way of speaking: a lot of unnecessary big words, "ummms", hyperbole, and emphasis on the "literal" "physical" reality of his war stories, which change freely on different occasions.

But those at a distance get a different perspective. Steve Emerson and Brian Duffy wrote well of Thurman in their 1990 book "The Fall of Pan Am 103".

"One of the bureau’s best explosives technicians … Regarded by his colleagues as a pro. Described by friends and co-workers as serious-minded and intense … according to those knowledgeable about the dangerous arcane world of explosives, he was among the very best investigators in the field."

The book relates his qualifications as follows:

"Thurman had acquired a master’s degree in forensic science from George Washington University and was a graduate of the United States Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal School. Even after all his highly specialised training, the FBI still did not consider Thurman quite ready to work in its Washington crime laboratory, one of the most advanced forensic labs in the world. At the bureau’s request, Thurman undertook more than a year of intense lab study on explosives and explosive devices. That was in 1977. Thurman had been a special agent with the bureau ever since…"

Other sources, apart from Whitehurst, Tobin and perhaps silent others, seem to lean as that book does. Tom is a fully-qualified and rigorous investigator of great brilliance. The unanimity is almost eerie. (see below)

Unit culture: explosive arts

Tainting Evidence explains that Explosives Unit, which Thurman marinated in and came to lead, were sometimes called the 'bombers'. This was apparently from their penchant for figuring out explosions by recreating them in a "trial and error … hopefully not too much error" method. They apparently start with a guess, try to rebuild an IED and blow it up, identify the differences and try again. They went on gut instincts and adrenaline, sounds like. Thurman himself told the Miami Herald in 1991 that "we're the blacksmiths of the FBI: the nuts and bolts. We get extremely dirty, actually, filthy dirty." It doesn’t sound fully scientific, and in fact, Tainting Evidence continues:

"The physical explosives examinations, crime scene investigations and bomb data identification that the 'bombers' did were not scientific. […] The FBI's Explosives Unit handed all scientific analysis over to chemists, metallurgists, or technicians [...] However, it was the principal examiners among the 'bombers' who made the decision as to what explosives evidence should go where and what the results meant in the context of the overall investigation. As such they would often interpret the results of others. It was a recipe for a culture clash — and more."

"The nature of the job," the book continues, aside from the obvious fun of it, "meant that pseudomilitary, nonscientific attitudes were entrenched in the Explosives Unit. Many were suffering from what one forensic scientist termed "testosterone poisoning." This difference alone could explain some of the conflict with those like Whitehurst and Tobin (not that either seems lacking in the testo department - ed). But more important than some science-vs-explosive arts dispute is the culture of politics over science and collective ass-covering that seems to be at work under the surface.

Unit culture: politics

Dr De Braeckeleer wrote that "William Tobin told me that, in his opinion, Thurman and other Explosives Unit examiners were prone to confirmation bias, an observer bias whereby an examiner is inclined to see what he is expected to see." Thurman in particular is singled out for seeing and saying what the prosecution wants to hear, as opposed to what the science, or presumably his own explosions, really says. That's a bad start point, methodologically.

Unlike the quieter Tobin, who only spoke up after retiring, Frederic Whitehurst had spent years lodging complaints with superiors about Thurman’s frequent alterations of his scientific reports. When in these disputes Whitehurst reminded him of their qualification difference, he tells De Braeckeleer: "Thurman did not deny it but argued that my reports could and/or would hurt the prosecution case. I was very concerned about the fact that wrong information in the final reports could hurt individuals and deny citizens of this country the right to a fair trial." For years, Thurman won these disputes.

Further, Whitehurst suggests a pattern of collective reinforcement and ass-covering, which would only naturally follow from the adoption of "political science." (It does not thrive, like real science does, on open challenges to the orthodoxy.) What he describes is a system that enables and rewards the actions of those like Thurman, and uses those rewards to justify further enabling:

"When I raised my concerns with my managers at the FBI laboratory, all except for one of them reminded me that Thurman was the 'hero' behind determining the perpetrators of the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster. I understood from that that the FBI would not expose these issues for fear that the investigation into the Pan Am 103 bombing would be seen as possibly flawed and this would open the FBI up to criticism and outside review.


I cannot imagine that he was acting alone. [...] The problem with having a scientific laboratory within an intelligence gathering organisation is that scientists traditionally are seeking truth and at times their data is in direct contradiction to the wishes of a government that is not seeking truth but victory on battle fields."

Tobin agrees, saying:

"I’ve seen so often where an individual who was at one time an independent thinker and had good powers of reasoning acquires the ‘us vs. them,’ circle-the-wagons, public-relations at all costs mentality at the FBI. [...] Whatever you do, ‘don’t embarrass the Bureau’ and ‘the Bureau can do no wrong'."

All this makes sense and explains the different views, cited above, one will get from talking to most Thurman colleagues or the bureau's press reports on the one hand, or from seeking out one of the others who don't get offered up for interviews with the big terrorism experts writing their bestsellers.

See also


  1. Roser, Ann. "Nuts and Bolts Work Pays Off in Lockerbie Probe." The Miami Herald Published November 30, 1991.
  2. "Tainting Evidence: Inside the scandals at the FBI crime lab." John F. Kelly and Phillip K. Wearne. Free Press, New York, 1998. Partial online excerpt.
  3. "The Framing of al-Megrahi"
  4. "Lockerbie Revisited"
  5. "Thurman's Photo Quest"
  6. "Fabricated evidence of Libyan terrorism"
  7. "Lockerbie Revisited" VPRO documentary by Gideon Levy (April 2009)
  8. "Scotbom: Evidence And The Lockerbie Investigation"[1, p58]
  9. "Memo dated 3 September 1990 from DI Williamson to SIO Stuart Henderson"
  10. "Eastern Kentucky University – Tom Thurman"
  11. "Lockerbie: a spook, the nymphs and a dwarf"
  12. Dr Ludwig De Braeckeleer "FBI Special Agent Thomas Thurman" Canada Free Press. 30 October 2008.
  13. "Association of Former Intelligence Officers" Weekly Intelligence Notes, February 2001.
  14. Emerson, Steve, and Brian Duffy. "The Fall of Pan Am 103". pp 27-28.
  15. The Maltese Double Cross Film, Hemar Enterprises, 1994, 156 minutes. Written, produced, and directed by Allan Francovich. Researched by John Ashton.
  16. "Frederic Whitehurst interviewed by Gideon Levy"
  17. "BBC Dispatches - Thurman interview"
  18. "Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab", John F Kelly and Philip K Wearne, Free Press, New York, 1998
  19. "Fabricated Evidence of Libyan Terrorism" Excerpt from "African Manipulations" by Pierre Péan, Le Monde diplomatique, 5 March 2001
  20. "Les preuves trafiquées du terrorisme libyen" by Pierre Péan, Le Monde diplomatique, 5 March 2001]


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