The FBI Wants Your DNA

Revolutionary Worker #1010, June 13, 1999

The apartment building in a poor part of the city is surrounded by heavily armed police. When the order is given, they charge into the building, knock down doors and drag everyone out. Older folks, small kids, some people clearly in poor health--all are forced into the back courtyard. Then the police technician and an aide--followed by two cops carrying semi-automatic weapons--go to each resident and force a cotton swab into their mouths. The swabs are put in test tubes to be sent back to the police lab. Mission accomplished. The DNA samples have been taken.

If the law enforcement authorities of the U.S. have their way, this scenario could become a future reality. DNA-based testing and identification--often called "DNA fingerprinting"--is being heavily promoted as a "foolproof" method of "fighting crime." Behind this hype are serious moves to make "DNA evidence" a standard tool of the police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

According to the FBI, each of the 50 states already have laws forcing people convicted of certain crimes to submit DNA samples. In February the U.S. Department of Justice asked the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence to study the legality of taking DNA samples from everyone arrested. North Carolina is pushing a law to force anyone arrested for a felony to submit a sample. Starting in September, everyone arrested in Louisiana is going to have a DNA sample taken.

In New York City, the Police Commissioner also called for taking DNA samples from every arrested person. Not to be outdone, NY Mayor "Adolph" Giuliani proposed that a DNA sample be taken from every newborn and the data put on file.

The police authorities in the U.S. have been looking at and learning from the experience of Britain--where the use of DNA-based identification has gone even further. Britain already has an extensive DNA database that has been functioning since 1995. And the Police Superintendent's Association is pushing to put the entire population into the database. According to a report in the New York Times, "In high profile crime cases, the police in Britain often ask, and can require, all members of a town or building to give DNA samples to help eliminate themselves as suspects and narrow the search for a culprit."

The use of genetic information by the government and the police is widening. And it is a major weapon being sharpened for use against the people.

What Is DNA?

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the molecular material that makes up genes contained within all human cells and plays an essential role in human biology. The science of genetics (the study of genes) and new discoveries about DNA have become big news in recent years. Many articles and reports in the mainstream media talk about how genes "determine" all types of human physical characteristics and behavior--from various diseases to homosexuality to even criminal behavior. And this idea is presented as "scientific fact." But in reality, this notion of DNA and genes is part of what is known as biological determinism, which reflects the ideology and outlook of the dominant class in this society, the bourgeoisie.

In Exploding the Gene Myth, biologist Ruth Hubbard and co-author Elijah Wald explain why this determinist view of genes and DNA is wrong: "The language that geneticists use often carries considerable ideological baggage. Molecular biologists, as well as the press, use verbs like `control', `program', or `determine' when speaking about what genes or DNA do. These are all inappropriate because they assign far too active a role to DNA. The fact is that DNA doesn't `do' anything; it is a remarkably inert molecule. It just sits in our cells and waits for other molecules to interact with it. In a way, the DNA in our cells is like a cookbook." Hubbard and Wald also point out, "The myth of the all-powerful gene is based on flawed science that discounts the environmental context in which we and our genes exist. It has many dangers, as it can lead to genetic discrimination and hazardous medical manipulations."

The Unreliability of DNA Fingerprinting

DNA-based identification (also known as typing, matching or profiling) is essentially a means of identifying pieces of DNA to match them against another sample. DNA contains millions of chemical "bases." Through scientific processes, the sequence of these bases in pieces of DNA can be identified. In theory, forensic scientists only need a small sample of tissue--such as hair, blood, skin or semen--to make a DNA profile. The DNA profile of that sample can then be compared with the profile of a sample taken from a "suspect" or a victim.

DNA-based profiles are promoted as an "absolute identifier" like fingerprints. But fingerprints are often difficult to obtain. With DNA testing, the samples are easier to obtain and also supposedly less subject to deterioration and tampering. A piece of clothing found at a "crime scene" could be the source of a bit of tissue to use in obtaining a DNA profile. Then that profile can be compared against one obtained from a sample taken from a "suspect"--by drawing a small amount of blood or by scraping the inside of the person's cheek with a cotton swab. The NYPD recently revealed that they were able to get DNA from someone they considered a suspect by giving him a cup of coffee and then taking a sample of saliva left on the rim of the cup.

However, the use of the term "DNA fingerprinting" oversimplifies what DNA typing is and implies an accuracy that currently doesn't exit. In the real world, DNA-based identification is far from perfect. In a test few years ago, the California Association of Crime Laboratories sent 50 DNA samples to Cetus, Cellmark and Lifecodes--companies who do DNA testing. Cetus and Cellmark mistakenly matched samples that were not identical. Lifecodes got all the samples right, but the testing was done by research scientists and not technicians who usually carry it out. A test done by the FBI'S Forensic Laboratory also revealed problems in accuracy.

Various scientists have pointed out other basic scientific problems with DNA profiling. Two well-known geneticists, Richard Lewontin and Daniel Hartl of Havard University, wrote a paper for Science magazine discussing some of these problems.

There is another factor: DNA testing is carried out by and for the very law enforcement authorities who have every interest in using it to convict and jail people. Planted or contaminated evidence and the subjective interpretations of government-paid investigators and scientists all can create a situation where "identifications" are made through DNA testing--when in fact there may be none.

Hubbard and Wald point out: "What all this boils down to is that, at present, the reliability of the data and of the scientists producing those data are in doubt. Unfortunately, judges and juries, like the rest of the public, are easily swayed by the mystique and power of science. When it is offered with appropriate fanfare, a DNA match need not be scientifically reliable to prove decisive in a court of law."

Building DNA Databases

Essential to all DNA testing is a simple fact: DNA found in one place needs to be matched with a sample from another place. This is why the government is moving to expand its database of DNA samples.

While it is still the case that DNA testing has to be done in a laboratory, the technology for testing is advancing quickly. The National Institute of Justice has put out $5 million dollars in grant money to speed up the development of a "lab on a microchip" that would allow DNA testing to be done within two minutes. The technology for doing this kind of testing is advancing much more quickly than the people's knowledge of how this information can be used against them.

As mentioned earlier, all 50 states now have laws on their books requiring convicted offenders to provide samples for DNA databases. So far these states have collected about 600,000 DNA samples and analyzed more than 250,000. If the Big Brother vision of testing everyone arrested came to pass, it would mean 15 million samples taken a year.

Last October the FBI introduced the National DNA Index System (NDIS) in order to link forensic laboratories throughout the United States. This database allows states to tap into a federal depository of DNA records--and to exchange and compare DNA profiles via computer. This system, called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), is already installed in 94 laboratories in 41 states and Washington, D.C. CODIS uses two "indexes." One has DNA profiles of people convicted of felony sex offenses and other violent crimes. The other component contains DNA profiles from crime scene evidence.

An "Upper Hand" for the Police

In a number of cases, DNA evidence has helped in freeing people who were wrongfully convicted by this country's "justice" system. An example is Rolando Cruz, who spent 10 years on death row in Illinois after being railroaded for a murder he didn't commit. Cruz was released in 1995, in part because of DNA evidence. More recently Anthony Gray was released from serving two life sentences in Maryland for murder and rape. The authorities were able to convict him by intimidating him into confessing to a crime he had nothing to do with. DNA tests finally showed Gray was not present at the scene of the murder. Another man--whose DNA was shown to match--eventually pled guilty to the murder in 1997. But it wasn't until February 1999 that Gray was finally released. Attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who established the Innocence Project, have used DNA-based identifications to exonerate 32 people--including 12 who were on death row.

However, as Hubbard and Wald point out: "We are regularly told that DNA profiles will be at least as useful to defendants as they are to prosecutors, since they are as likely to establish innocence as guilt. However, unless the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible than it is now, its acceptance by the courts disproportionately increases the advantage of the prosecution. Defendants and their attorneys usually do not have the funds to employ this sort of technology."

The ruling class certainly is not expanding the use of DNA evidence in order to avoid wrongful convictions of innocent people. DNA testing is being broadened as a means of more quickly identifying and controlling greater and greater numbers of the people. NY Governor Pataki, talking about the state's plan to increase DNA testing, bluntly said, "It will give police the upper hand."

DNA testing also has other Big Brother implications. On CNN TV's "Burden of Proof," Ira Glaser of the American Civil Liberties Union explained one danger from the push to build DNA databases: "It provides information about maybe 4,000 different diseases and genetic conditions which it is nobody's business to know and which can be used to deny you insurance and employment later on." Just how far things have already gone can be seen in a 1997 survey conducted by the American Management Association. The survey found that 6 to 10 percent of responding employers--well over 6,000 companies--already use genetic testing for employment purposes. The non-profit advocacy group Council for Responsible Genetics has documented hundreds of cases in which healthy people were denied insurance or a job based on genetic "predictions."

But more is at stake than "personal privacy." As Glaser went on to say on CNN, "The history of information in this country is that once the government has it, it is usually misused. It's usually used for purposes that are different from the one originally intended. The Social Security number is a perfect example. Census information that took down ethnic background was supposed to be used just for counting--then it ended up being used to round up Japanese-Americans during World War II. Information collected for one purpose is always used for other purposes, even though at the beginning we are assured it will not be."

Philip Bereano, a technology and public policy professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the New York Times, "The DNA database started out with pariahs: the sex offenders. It has already been enlarged to include other felons and will probably be extended to include everyone, giving elites the power to control `unruly' citizens."

"Criminal" Genes

The push for DNA testing is happening in the context of a reactionary atmosphere of biological determinism that seeks to reduce more and more of human behavior to genes--instead of analyzing how society molds and impacts every sphere of human health, physiology and behavior. Included in this gene-crazy pseudo-science are theories of "criminality" and "criminal genes" that have found increasing recognition among certain official circles. Supposedly "respected" scientists claim that some people have genes that make them "more aggressive" and therefore "more prone to criminal activity." In this kind of climate, the expansion of DNA fingerprinting and databases raises the nightmarish possibility of whole new levels of police-state controls--including the rounding up of people labeled as "genetically criminal."

Challenging the phony theories of biological determinism, Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his book The Mismeasure of Man: "But why should the violent behavior of some desperate and discouraged people point to a specific disorder of their brain while the corruption and violence of some congressmen and presidents provokes no similar theory? Human populations are highly variable for all behaviors; the simple fact that some do and some don't provides no evidence for a specific pathology mapped upon the brain of doers. Shall we concentrate upon an unfounded speculation for the violence of some--one that follows the determinist philosophy of blaming the victim--or shall we try to eliminate the oppression that builds ghettos and saps the spirit of their unemployed in the first place?"

There has been other important opposition to biological determinism in academic and scientific circles. In 1992 a conference at the University of Maryland featuring determinist views was canceled after opposition forced the National Institutes of Health to pull back grant money. The conference was eventually held in 1995, but these theories were challenged. Dorothy Nelkin, a sociology professor at New York University who attended the conference, pointed out, "By making social factors irrelevant, genetic explanations of crime provide convenient excuses for those seeking to dismantle the welfare state."

The collective labor and struggle of humanity has been the basis for leaps in scientific understanding. But in the hands of the bourgeois class, this knowledge is turned into a weapon against the masses of proletarians and oppressed people. DNA "fingerprinting" is a tool to further criminalize the people and strengthen the repressive capabilities of the state. The real criminals are this system and its rulers.

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