posted 13 November 2010
last edits 16 Nov
From Kentucky to Lockerbie and Back: A Quick Bio
Special Agent James T. “Tom” Thurman hails from Richmond, Kentucky, born on an unpublicized date to Margaret and James "Spider" Thurman  Tom spent most fof the 1970s serving in the U.S. Army, according to the 1998 book Tainting Evidence, starting to gravitate to explosives work "as an officer commanding an ammunitions company in Korea." His calling led him to join the FBI in 1977, and by 1981 he'd worked up to the small and elite Explosives Unit. 
His work on the Lockerbie SCOTBOM case was the first big thing in his career, starting immedaiately on 21 December 1988, examining the aircraft's debris. Later, he also sat in on the FBI interview of suspected bomb-maker Marwan Khreesat in Amman, Jordan, November 1989. (Thurman and Lockerbie: Overview, forthcoming)
By the end of the year Thurman was also juggling this work with the VANPAC case - the mail-bomb killing of a federal judge, a lawyer, and other attempts. In that case, Thurman was pivotal to the identification of LeRoy Moody, by a "unique" bomb style, or "signature." This case, prosecuted by future FBI director Louis Freeh, gave Thurman some minor celebrity status. (Thurman and Moody: forthcoming).
In June 1990 Thurman made the lightning timer identification for the SCOTBOM case, cementing the turn to Libya. The telltale MST-13 was identified, thanks to Thurman's knowing people - like a mysterious CIA analyst who made the match possible. After the resulting 1991 indictments, he gained much wider media fame, most notably as ABC News' "Person of the Week." He told the show "I love putting the bad guys away." 
Somewhere in there, he also helped French investigators identify another "signature," a piece of circuit board from the bombing of UTA 772 in Sept. 1989 – leading again to Libya. (Thurman and UTA 772: forthcoming) (UTA 772 at all: forthcoming)
In 1993 Louis Freeh took over the FBI, and shortly after promoted Thurman to director of the explosives unit.  From that perch he had a major role in the investigation of the truly epic 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. (Thurman and OKBOM: forthcoming) But for collected allegations of misbehavior in this and earlier cases, Mr. Thurman was drummed out of the crime lab only two years later, in 1997. This was triggered almost solely by the efforts of one tenacious analyst, Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, and the Inspector General’s investigation that finally followed. (Thurman and 1997: forthcoming)
Not surprisingly, Thurman was not called as a star witness, or a witness of any kind, at the Camp Zeist trial of the two accused. As of 2000, according to an EKU bio, James T. Thurman has been teaching courses at East Kentucky University, where the elder James "Spider" Thurman was once an alumni director (knows people ... spider ... web?). His son is 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 a 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) Do note: the the criticism of the board differences they put to him is pure hogwash. Thurman comes out looking smart by comparison to Maj. Owen Lewis (16:40).
On Thurman's Qualifications
On the face of it, all these things suggest a seriously qualified and professional expert, but sources vary widely. Some of those who've worked with Thurman pan his credentials. Dr. Ludwig de Braeckeleer interviewed two of these, including the aforementioned 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 recognized 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 he 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 Cs in class, but really just loves to blow things up, A beefy fellow with a slightly shy manner, cop-like mustache, 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 coworkers as serious-minded and intense … according to those knowledgeable about the dangerous arcane of explosives, he was among the very best investigators in the field.” The book relates his qualifications so:
“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 specialized 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…” From the other sources I've seen, his high-level colleagues, Whitehurst and Tobin and perhaps silent others aside, 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)
E. Unit Culture: The 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:
“[T]he 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 differences 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.
E. Unit Culture: Politics
Dr. DeBraeckeleer 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 say.  That's a bad start point, methodologically.
Unlike the quieter Tobin, who only spoke up after retiring, Frederic Whitehurst had spent year 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 prosecutors’ cases. I was very concerned about the fact that wrong information in the final reports could hurt individuals and deny citizens of this country right to a fair trial."  For years, Tom 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 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 organization 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.
 Roser, Ann. “Nuts and Bolts Work Pays Off in Lockerbie Probe.” The Miami Herald. Published November 30, 1991. http://plane-truth.com/Aoude/geocities/miami7.html
 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.
 East Kentucky University. EKUpdate, vol 7 no 17, May 1, 2006.
 Dr. Ludwig de Braeckeleer. "FBI Special Agent Thomas Thurman." Canada Free Press. 30 October 2008. http://www.canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/6529
 Emerson, Steve, and Brian Duffy. The Fall of Pan Am 103. pp 27-28.