The Federal Bureau of Errors

He who would distinguish the true from the false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false.

Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise

To err is human, and the FBI is nothing if not human.

First it was Wen Ho Lee. In a daring raid on his home in Los Alamos in 2000, the FBI collected lots of really good evidence it could use to prosecute him including the Los Alamos telephone book, a church telephone roster, the membership list of the Chinese-American Society, the plays of Tennessee Williams and selected short stories of Guy de Maupassant. Mr. Lee was charged with , among other things, 39 Atomic Energy Act violations. He plead guilty to one count of downloading classified material and was freed. At his sentencing the presiding judge told Mr. Lee that the government’s handling of the case “embarrassed our entire nation.” He could have said that it embarrassed the FBI but he probably thought they were already embarrassed.

The FBI came another cropper in the case of James Yee. Mr. Yee was an army captain stationed in Guantanamo. Upon arriving on leave in Jacksonville Florida he was arrested on suspicion of sedition and espionage. After holding him in solitary confinement for many weeks, the government abandoned all thought of sedition and espionage and charged Captain Lee with adultery, storing pornography on a government computer and mishandling classified files. Those charges were all eventually dropped, Captain Yee freed, and the FBI again embarrassed.

Not daunted, the FBI struck again. This time its target was Brandon Mayfield. Mr. Mayfield is a lawyer living in Seattle, Washington.

The Spanish had a bag with fingerprints on it they believed belonged to one of those involved in the March 11 terrorist bombings in Madrid, which killed 291 people and injured 2,000. They sent it to the F.B.I. to see if there was a match while continuing to make their own assessment of the prints. March 20 the F.B.I. concluded it had a “100%” match with Mr. Mayfield. April 2 it informed the Spanish, furnishing them with a copy of Mr. Mayfield’s prints. April 13 the Spanish politely informed the F.B.I. it was wrong. April 21 Spanish and American forensic experts met in Madrid and the Spanish tried to explain to the American experts why the prints didn’t match. The F.B.I. paid no attention. Commenting on the F.B.I. ‘s obtuseness, a Spanish police official said: “The Spanish officers told them (F.B.I. representatives) with all the affection in the world that it wasn’t him [Mayfield]. We never wanted to simply come out and say the F.B.I. made a mistake. We tried to be diplomatic, not to make them look bad, so we just said the case is still open.”

Pedro Luis Melida Lledo, head of the fingerprint unit for the Spanish National Police whose team analyzed the prints explained that the F.B.I. “had a justification for everything. But I just couldn’t see it.” Carlos Corrales, a commissioner of the Spanish National Police’s science division said: “It seemed as though they had something against him and they wanted to involve us.” According to Mr. Corrales, following the April 21 meeting the F.B.I. continued to press the Spanish to concur in its findings. It was unsuccessful.

Undaunted by its flawed analysis, the F.B.I. obtained and executed a search warrant on Mr. Mayfield’s home and office. It obtained lots of useful things, including “miscellaneous Spanish documents” which family members said were homework assignments for the Mayfield children. Mr. Mayfield was arrested, held for 14 days and then released when the F.B.I. realized the Spanish were right and had already arrested someone whose finger prints matched those on the bag. The F.B.I. apologized for its error.

The three men are only the tip of the iceberg. Those on the submerged part of the iceberg are people like Jose Padilla who has been imprisoned for more than two years but not accused of anything. By not accusing him there’s no chance the Justice Department will be embarrassed by an acquittal. But I digress. Back to the three men who are the iceberg’s tip.

Each man was suspected of committing heinous crimes. Mr. Lee, if found guilty of the original charges could have spent life in prison. The other two men were told they faced the death penalty but didn’t since they were never convicted of anything. The treatment of the three men was an outrage that would not be tolerated in a society that was ruled by laws rather than Ashcroft, Cheney and Bush. Not to worry. As those three men have explained, this is war. In war, we are informed, civil liberties must be sacrificed.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at:


Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at For political commentary see his web page at