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Sergeant Lee Peters is a Scene of Crime Officer with the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch and one of only 5 practitioners qualified in forensic evidence recovery. (Cpl Laura Bibby/Cpl Laura Bibby)
Sergeant Lee Peters is a Scene of Crime Officer with the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch and one of only 5 practitioners qualified in forensic evidence recovery. (Cpl Laura Bibby/Cpl Laura Bibby)

CSI Afghanistan

Canadian Forces bring forensics to the battlefield Add to ...

The list has five types of suspects, from Level 1, a “high-value target” who has to be detained immediately, to Level 5, someone with a criminal background who is just to be barred from entering military bases.

Such data helped U.S. soldiers capture 775 “high-value” suspects last year, General George Casey, who was U.S. Army chief of staff, told Congress this spring.

For example, a July 9, 2009, “Capture/Kill” night raid by the U.S. 4th Airborne Brigade netted a suspect who was scrutinized on the HIIDE, according to a military log released by WikiLeaks. The machine gave a 97-per-cent probability that the man was “Objective Russian Jack,” an insurgent leader named Rashid Bawari.

Canada’s special forces appear in a March 2, 2008, cable. It describes a helicopter-borne operation code-named Dropkick in which members of “CANSOF” (the Canadian Special Operations Forces) and Afghan troops would assault a compound and look for “Objective Yoda,” a bomb maker named Haji Sahib.

The biometric data also screens Afghans who enter coalition facilities. A June, 2009, cable mentions a case at Forward Operating Base Joyce, in Kunar province. “We have a local national worker on FOB Joyce that has a 100% fingerprint match that was taken off an IED a year ago,” the log noted at 8:33 a.m.

By noon, the worker was under arrest and waiting to be flown to the Bagram detention centre to be questioned.

GATHERING THE EVIDENCE

Battlefield forensics often start in the chaos and bloodshed after an IED strike, even as locals scavenge metal fragments or ammunition cooks off in burning wreckage.

Civilian police can take days to canvass a crime scene, but in the battlefield “you may only have 30 minutes on the ground,” said Lt. McNamara, a Navy diver who did bomb-disposal duty in Afghanistan.

He recalls working in body armour in 50-degree heat, crawling in blood- and oil-splattered wrecks, the fingertips of his latex gloves puffed up from pooled sweat.

While the Canadian army is tight-lipped about how it processes the biometric information it collects, details about military forensics have appeared in specialized magazines and promotional videos of U.S. forces.

Take that severed hand that American soldiers recovered in Armul in 2007.

Fingerprints are wired to a Pentagon facility in Clarksburg, W.Va., to be added to a database of fingerprints, iris scans and facial photos of millions of Iraqis and Afghans.

The other remains – such as the blue-plastic fragments – were of interest because, three days before, an Arizona National Guardsman was killed by an IED made with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil packed in blue-plastic jugs.

The artifacts were sent to the American lab at Bagram Air Field near Kabul, to be triaged, X-rayed, photographed, measured and inspected for DNA or latent prints. In cases where the evidence is significant, it is shipped to the FBI labs in Quantico, Va., where the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center keeps more than 71,000 IED artifacts.

Sifting through these artifacts is tedious and exhausting work. Military labs have to process the evidence to police-level standards, meaning that a chain of custody has to be recorded for each copper wire, every strip of tape, every cigarette butt, like cataloguing a giant junkyard.

One Canadian military police officer who worked in 2008 at the Bagram lab handled 14,300 artifacts in nine months. Another was commended for processing 500 pieces of evidence a week.

THE SHORTCOMINGS.

Forensic work is not a panacea. Sometimes troops aren’t versed in the new procedures, and evidence is compromised.

During a road-clearance operation on Jan. 23, 2008, an IED blew up under a LAV III vehicle, killing a Canadian combat engineer, Corporal Étienne Gonthier. A bomb investigator later complained that the patrol touched the evidence with bare hands, contaminating it.

“It is clear that the patrol touched the objects that were collected without gloves. Team leaders and [commanders]must conduct more appropriate and valuable site exploitation,” an investigator wrote in a report found in the WikiLeaks logs.

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