Forgeries, Fingerprints and Forensic Fakery

There’s nothing easier to fall for than a forgery, and nothing easier than to find an expert to give that same forgery a vibrant testimonial as the genuine article. The hallways of history echo with the furious assertions of authenticity from people with so much staked on their claim that retraction is the remotest of options, at least until the awful truth soaks in: They’ve been had.

Today, the uproar concerns the possibility that CBS has been the victim of the forger’s art. Back in 1997, it was Seymour Hersh and ABC News who were wiping egg off their faces when a supposed contract between President John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, guaranteeing a payout to the actress in return for her silence about their affair, turned out to be fake.

Go back to 1983, and we get to my favorite, the Hitler “diaries” forged by Konrad Kujau, who dashed them off in school exercise books, then bought Letraset at the local stationers to put a majestic “AH” on each cover in old German script. The stationer had run out of the letter A, so Kujau bought F instead. Each exercise book had FH on the front, which didn’t prevent scores of Hitler scholars including the late Lord Dacre (aka Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper) from issuing their enthusiastic imprimaturs.

Back in time we could go, to the Zinoviev letter published by the London Daily Mail four days before the election of Oct. 29, 1924, which helped in the Conservative ouster of the first British Labor government. The letter purported to be a communication from Grigori Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International, to the Central Committee of the British Communist Party exulting in the fact that a new Anglo-Soviet trade agreement would open rich opportunities in Labor-led Britain for Red subversion.

Prepared either by Russian anti-Communist exiles or by the British security services, the letter was larded with palpable absurdities. But it was vehemently endorsed as genuine and was one of the more successful “October surprises” of the twentieth century.

There are two points here salient to the consideration of forensic evidence: the predisposition to believe and the actual circumstances of forensic review. These both bear on the realm where the question of genuineness has very serious consequences, namely the criminal justice system.

The CBS researchers, Hersh, Dacre and the Daily Mail had a predisposition to believe, despite what were presumably determined efforts to maintain the requisite sense of caution. And as late as last Friday, Dan Rather offered a careful defense, covering in a determined matter all the questions raised by critics of the CBS documents.

If proven to have been fooled, CBS will survive, the same way Hersh, Dacre (though he was badly dented) and the London Daily Mail moved on from their debacles. But now consider the juries which listen to forensic experts marshaled by the prosecution solemnly attesting to the undoubted authenticity of finger prints, ballistic data that point overwhelmingly to the guilt of the defendant.

Most of this evidence survives scrutiny because the defense teams can’t afford the expert witnesses necessary to challenge the prosecution’s team. When a rich defendant like O.J. Simpson comes along, the forensic evidence is usually exposed as improperly collected, inadequately stored and erroneously examined.

“Fingerprint” evidence was regarded as virtually beyond challenge, until replaced in recent years by DNA hits as the very quintessence of certainty. For years I’ve thought this was nonsense, and that it was the mere reputation of finger print data that carried the day for the prosecutors. After all, the British civil servant in nineteenth century India who retrieved an old Chinese technique did so merely because he wanted to impress his workers with the thought that if he could not tell them apart by facial appearance, he could detect when they were turning up twice in the pay line by checking their fingerprints. He pretended to, but he never did. It was all theater. Down the decades all a prosecutor had to do was claim a “sure match” of prints, and it was all over.

I felt I was alone in my disbelief until, earlier this year, the FBI tried to nail a lawyer from Portland, Ore., with complicity in the Madrid bombing, alleging a match with prints found near the crime scene. Despite the doubts expressed by the Spanish police, the FBI continued to insist on the match and the lawyer had a very nasty time of it. The Spanish police finally prevailed, and the Oregonian newspaper printed the two sets of prints. It didn’t take an expert to tell they were different.

No expert witness, fat with their hefty per diems, is going to admit that assessment of shell case landings, powder burns, tissue decay and so forth are an uncertain game. Poor people get public defenders without the time or money to impeach the prosecution’s forensic pretensions. Ahead of us lie the supposedly reliable computerized ID systems that can identify malefactors with long-range cameras.

It takes the well-publicized forgery debacles to remind us that the underpinnings of the prosecutorial state are often as bogus as those schoolbooks Kujau turned out, night after night, with the F instead of the A.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN is the coeditor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of the must-have book for the 2004 election season, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.