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Tuesday, May 2, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tag Explosives To Trace Bombs? Nra, Others Blocked Research

AP: Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Almost 20 years ago the government developed a way to mark explosives to help trace terrorist bombs. But Congress blocked the research, even after a test of the device helped catch a bomber in Baltimore.

Lobbying by the explosives industry and the National Rifle Association, citing safety concerns, buried the idea.

The Oklahoma City bombing shocked it back to life.

Last week President Clinton proposed legislation to resume Treasury Department study of the feasibility of mixing tracers, called "taggants," into dynamite and other explosives. That might include the fertilizer used to make the Oklahoma City bomb, or other materials that detonate such bombs.

A blast would scatter these tiny plastic tracers, which survive as a clue to help find the bomber.

MICROSCOPIC COLOR CODE

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) began developing taggants in 1974. Each chip, about the size of a grain of sand, carries a microscopic color code that shows where and when the explosives were made. They can be gathered with magnets or viewed with fluorescent light.

In a pilot program, manufacturers inserted the plastic tags into some 7 million pounds of dynamite sold between 1977 and 1979 - a fraction of 1 percent of the dynamite sold in those years.

The test wasn't expected to lead to an arrest. But in May 1979 investigators found taggants from one of the test shipments at the scene of a car bomb that killed Nathan Allen of Baltimore. Within 24 hours they traced the dynamite from its maker to the buyer, Allen's uncle, James McFillin.

McFillin, who apparently believed Allen was having an affair with his wife, was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

DANGER, HIGH COST CITED

Federal agents couldn't have dreamed up a better demonstration of the technology. But it didn't convince detractors, or Congress.

Opponents said the government had not proved the devices were safe. Tampering with explosives could put miners and others who work with them at risk, the Institute of Makers of Explosives said. Opponents also argued that the taggant program would be too expensive.

The NRA raised similar safety complaints about taggants in gunpowder, and also likened it to federal registration of firearms. The government wanted to mark the black powder used by owners of old-style muzzleloading guns because it is often used in pipe bombs.

"The NRA was pretty vocal," said Jim Pasco, a former BATF assistant director who is now executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "This would have been one tremendous leap forward, and it was just stopped cold."

A 1980 report by congressional investigators called taggants "useful law enforcement tools against terrorists," but also urged more study to settle the safety questions.

The report, by the Office of Technology Assessment, predicted the safety research could be completed in time to require the markers in explosives by 1984.

Instead, Congress cut off all spending on the taggant program.

NRA TAKING NEW LOOK

This time things could be different. "We definitely have momentum now," said Tom Diaz, minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime. "I feel pretty confident some of these antiterrorism measures are going to pass."

Some seem opposed to the idea no matter what. Dick Grace, a Shawnee, Okla., real-estate appraiser shopping for long arms, scoffed at the use of "tags" to identify fertilizer that might end up in a bomb.

"The problem's not fertilizer," Grace said. "The problem's people."

And the explosives institute last week reiterated its opposition.

As for the NRA, last Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, noted the group's earlier argument that taggants might destabilize gunpowder. But he added, "We're taking a whole other look at the issue."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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