Terrorist-Fighting Sleuths Get Help from "Taggants"
By Christopher B. Cohen
(as appeared in the 5/13/95 Chicago Sun-Times)

 Sixteen years ago, on May 10, 1979, Nathan Allen left work at Bethlehem Steel Company's Baltimore plant and got in his truck to go home.

  As he turned on the ignition, the truck exploded in the parking lot. Allen was killed and his passenger injured. The murderer soon was arrested and convicted due to a new invention for "tagging" explosives.

 After the explosion, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms examined the site for evidence. They found microscopic, plastic, color-coded chips called ''taggants"-part of an ATF pilot program in 1978 and 1979. The color code lists given to the ATF allowed it to trace the explosive used in the bomb.

 In the 16 years since, thousands of bombs have shattered lives of otherwise ordinary Americans with little notoriety. Then came the bombings at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City last month.

 Since Allen's killer's 1980 conviction in federal court in Baltimore, and its affirmation by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1981, the ATF halted its program to catch bomb-making criminals through the use of taggants. These tagging devices are no longer mixed into explosives in the United States.

 To aid law enforcement, the colored striped codes in the plastic flakes are changed after each shift at the explosives plant. During manufacturing, they are given magnetic and fluorescent qualities. This means detectives and investigators can more easily find these tiny specks by shining ultraviolet light on debris left at a bombing site.

  Investigators can place a magnet inside a small plastic evidence bag turned inside out. When the magnetized particles are drawn to the plastic bag, it is turned outside in with the evidence sealed inside. Bringing a microscope to a truck's tailgate allows investigators to read the code right at the bombing site. They compare it to the code book and immediately contact the manufacturer and retail outlet.

  In 16 years, bills have been introduced in Congress to help trace the source of bombings. None passed. Insertion of tagging devices into all manufactured explosives and potassium nitrate is opposed by the Institute of Makers of Explosives, the National Rifle Association and the Fertilizer Institute.

 Taggants are the size of pepper flakes. Those who argue against their use say that they would add to the cost of explosives and thus damage the mining and oil exploration businesses that use these commercial products. Others want an exception so taggants will not be placed in gunpowder-a favorite substance for making pipe bombs.

  Still others don't want the plastic specks put into fertilizer, which can be combined with fuel oil to produce powerful bombs.

  Democratic anti-terrorism legislation has yet to be released but it is likely to require the treasury secretary to study tagging explosives, making fertilizer inert and controls on bomb components.

Chris Cohen served two terms as a Chicago alderman and was Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter Administration. He has been an Administrative Law Judge for the State of Illinois and Cook County Government as well as a partner for 13 yearss in a mid-sized Loop law firm.

If you have questions about this article please contact Christopher Cohen at 847/867-8500 or 847/835-4002.

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