Skip to main content

FBI Laboratory: Chemistry and Trace Evidence Units Generally Adhere to Quality Standards, but Could Review More Examiner Testimonies

GAO-17-516 Published: Jun 28, 2017. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2017.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory has a framework in place to help ensure quality in its forensic examinations of chemical and trace evidence. Based on accreditation results and GAO's review, the framework meets international and accreditation standards. The FBI Laboratory quality assurance framework consists of policies and procedures, quality assurance mechanisms, corrective actions, and training requirements that are designed to ensure quality in its forensic examinations and related activities (see figure). The framework includes policies, procedures, and training specific to each unit of the Laboratory, such as the Chemistry and Trace Evidence Units.

FBI Laboratory Quality Assurance Framework

FBI Laboratory Quality Assurance Framework

GAO found that the FBI Laboratory generally ensures the Chemistry and Trace Evidence Units adhere to quality standards for conducting forensic examinations, including conducting audits, implementing corrective actions, ensuring staff have appropriate training, and reviewing laboratory reports. However, the Laboratory's program to review examiner testimonies to ensure they are accurate and within the scientific limits of the given forensic discipline is limited by difficulties in acquiring testimony transcripts. Specifically, the Laboratory did not acquire transcripts and conduct internal evaluations for nearly half of the testimonies (78 of 164) given by Chemistry and Trace Evidence Unit examiners from 2011 through 2015, citing difficulties in locating transcripts and lack of response from courts. To better understand these factors, GAO sought and obtained almost half of the 78 transcripts (36 of 78). While attempting to obtain the remainder, GAO confirmed some of the difficulties identified by the FBI. Consistent with internal control standards, the FBI Laboratory could better ensure it obtains more transcripts for review by routinely capturing and using additional information that is critical to transcript acquisition, such as court jurisdiction and points of contact. Obtaining additional transcripts could help the FBI Laboratory expand its monitoring of examiner testimonies to help ensure the testimonies are accurate and within scientific limits, as defined by FBI and accreditation standards.

Why GAO Did This Study

The FBI Laboratory, within the Department of Justice (DOJ), is responsible for analysis of forensic evidence for the FBI, other parts of DOJ, and domestic law enforcement agencies, among others.

GAO was asked to examine how the FBI Laboratory ensures the reliability of its forensic examinations, in particular within its Chemistry and Trace Evidence Units. For these two units, this report addresses (1) how the FBI Laboratory works to ensure quality in conducting forensic examinations, and (2) the extent to which it has taken steps to ensure adherence to the FBI Laboratory's quality standards.

GAO reviewed policies and procedures of the FBI Laboratory and its Chemistry and Trace Evidence Units; audit and accreditation reports from 2008, when the Laboratory was accredited to international standards, through 2015, the most recent available; the training records of all 47 staff who conducted casework in these two units from fiscal year 2011 to July 2016, the most recent available; and evaluation records for examiner testimonies and related laboratory reports in these two units from fiscal years 2011 to 2015, the 5 fiscal years prior to this review. GAO also independently sought to obtain testimony transcripts the FBI was unable to obtain for this period.


GAO recommends that the FBI Laboratory's transcript acquisition procedure routinely capture and use additional information critical to transcript acquisition. The FBI concurred with our recommendation and described planned actions for implementation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Bureau of Investigation To better ensure that the FBI Laboratory obtains additional transcripts, the FBI Director should require that the FBI Laboratory's procedure for tracking and obtaining transcripts routinely captures and uses additional information and data critical to transcript acquisition, such as the reason a transcript is unavailable, when it is expected to be available, the court jurisdiction, and a point of contact for the transcript.
Closed – Implemented
By April 2018, the FBI Laboratory added the following fields to its Testimony Tracker System: (1) court jurisdiction; (2) point of contact for the transcript (person that the examiner spoke to); (3) reason (for why the transcript is not available); and (4) the expected date for the transcript to become available. The FBI Laboratory also provided training to staff on how to enter and use these and other data in the Tracker System to obtain transcripts and updated its policy to require that the unit chief or designee check the Tracker System monthly to ensure that staff are entering required information. In March 2019, the FBI Laboratory provided GAO a report from the Tracker System showing that the fields had been completed for at least four quarters (fiscal year 2018). These actions should help the FBI Laboratory's efforts to increase the number of transcripts acquired and expand its monitoring of examiners' testimonies, which should help ensure the testimonies are accurate, supported by the underlying analyses, and within the scientific limits of the given forensic discipline, as defined by FBI and accreditation standards. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Certification and accreditationChemistryCorrective actionCriminal investigationsInternal controlsPolicies and proceduresQuality assuranceQuality standardsLaboratory facilitiesLaw courts