DEA Forensic Scientists: Chemists, Computer Forensic Examiners and Fingerprint Specialists

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Like any law enforcement agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration relies on forensic scientists to collect evidence, analyze it and place evidence-based conclusions in the investigative pipeline.  Unlike other police organizations, however, the DEA often utilizes forensic evidence to build cases against international narcotics kingpins, criminals and terrorists.  The forensic scientists provide the intelligence and material evidence that often justifies tactical missions, international apprehensions and extraditions, and successful criminal prosecutions.

The DEA is responsible for enforcing the nation’s drug laws, so much of the forensic technology it utilizes is related to chemistry.  While chemical analysis may assist investigators in some forensic areas, fingerprint specialists are often the most immediate resource for DEA agents who need immediate evidence to continue their investigations.  The third area that presents a significant amount of information for DEA personnel is digital forensics related to computers and electronic devices.

Forensic Chemists in the DEA

In the ongoing war between the United States and narcotics organizations, the forensic chemist plays a pivotal role.  While these organizations develop variations on known drugs that augment the euphoric highs of narcotics, mask their presence to drug sniffing canines, or use more cost effective or available methods to produce, the DEA is aggressively analyzing new compounds and identifying their raw materials and production methods.

Forensic chemists use some of the most advanced analytical methods and technologies available.  Techniques like gas chromatography, atomic fluorescence spectroscopy and capillary electrophoresis break down unknown substances into molecular components.  Forensic chemists then determine the concentrations of each substance to recreate the structure of the drug.  The methods utilized to fabricate illegal substances are reverse engineered using principles from chemical and industrial engineering.

These cutting edge scientists are often among the leaders in pharmacological science. Not only do criminal organizations manufacture new narcotics, but they also substitute imperfect copies for authentic pharmaceuticals.  Fake prescription drugs often mask thefts and present a serious public safety risk.  Forensic chemists are critical to identifying substitutes and providing clues as to who and when the drugs were misappropriated.

Computer Forensic Examiners (CFR) in the DEA

Many of the organizations and individuals that the DEA targets use complex financial mechanisms to mask their illegal operations. Most of these sophisticated financial transactions are managed through the internet or using proprietary information systems.  In order to investigate these operations the DEA has created one of the most advanced digital forensics programs in the world.

Computer forensic examiners are among the most knowledgeable and highly educated professionals at the DEA.  Many of these scientists are leaders in the field of information technology, digital security, and cryptology.  They use sophisticated techniques cross-drive analysis, stochastic forensics and steganography to penetrate robust network security systems and retrieve critical information.  These examiners also work with some of the government’s foremost mathematicians and encryption experts to decipher communiques through public and private channels.

Computer forensic examiners often serve as more than mere analysts.  In some cases their expertise may be used to disrupt sensitive transactions, modify critical messages, destabilize digital or physical security measures and knock offline critical systems.  With so many communications, power and transportation systems governed by software applications, the ability to compromise those systems can produce critical advantages to field operatives and tactical teams.

Fingerprint Specialists in the DEA

One of the most vital pieces of information for investigators and agents is who was present at a given location.  This may relate to a criminal investigation, but for many DEA operations this is a key piece of intelligence that can prove essential to the successful completion of the counter-drug or counter-terrorism objective.  Time is of the essence in these operations and one of the most immediate methods for identifying past visitors is fingerprint analysis.

The DEA uses fingerprint specialists in many front line situations where gathering forensic evidence is a priority.  There are a variety of methods for fingerprint recovery including chemical reproduction from impressions on flat or soft surfaces.  In some cases, fingerprints may even be recovered from digital recordings.

The challenge in fingerprint analysis is capturing enough of the print for comparison with law enforcement databases.  Most fingerprints are only partial in nature and may not provide enough marker points without careful analysis and reconstruction.  In many field operations an educated guess may prove sufficient for identification, but within a judicial setting, the standard for accuracy is considerably higher.

Fingerprint specialists may even use extremely sensitive chemical tests to determine physiological characteristics about the owner.  The oils transferred from the skin can be used to test for the use of nicotine, marijuana or cocaine.

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