Contradictions in Taggant Reports

Monday, March 30th, 1998

Maybe the two taggant reports themselves were not as contradictory as it seemed, but the spin put on them indicated some differences. Both reports were released on March 4: One prepared by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the other by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. Both were funded by the federal government since the National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers chartered by Congress to do research for the government.

The lead on the Associated Press report of the BATF research said, “An interim Treasury report ordered by Congress finds ‘great promise’ in combating terrorism by putting tiny chemical tracers known as taggants in explosives.

“But the report. . . called for further research. It cited ‘remaining complexities surrounding the issue.’ ”

The Reuters wire service report on the NRC study began: “An expert report to Congress . . . said additives put into explosives to help detect them before use or determine their origin were not yet practical enough for broad use.”

In its own news release, the NRC went on to say that, “Nor is there a practical method available to neutralize the explosive properties of ammonium nitrate, a commonly available fertilizer that was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.”

The BATF report called for further research.

“We’re not at the implementation stage right now,” said Raymond Kelly, Treasury undersecretary for enforcement. He promised a final report next year.

The interim study, prepared by BATF, examined the use of taggants in Switzerland for the past 17 years and “found no safety concerns at all,” Kelly told reporters, according to AP.

Both reports clearly indicate that the taggant issue is still a year or more away from serious consideration in Congress.

Gunowners, particularly reloaders and black powder shooters, have been concerned about the taggant issue because of suggestions that taggants be added to smokeless and black powder, which have been used as fillers in pipe bombs and other home-made explosives.

The issue of adding taggants to smokeless and black powder is the subject of a separate study, which was not part of either of the reports released on March 4.

The taggant issue is much more complicated than some politicians and news reports have indicated. Summaries of the two reports indicate that a variety of chemical and other additives were examined to make detection before detonation, especially at airports, much more reliable, as well as to be able to trace the origins of explosive materials for purposes of post-blast investigations and prosecutions.

The reports also noted that adding taggants at this time would not address the problem of millions of tons of existing explosive materials in inventories, or in the materials now held by the military. In addition, it would do nothing to enhance detection or investigation if the explosives were provided by a foreign government sponsoring terrorism.

Despite the new reports, however, some state lawmakers have been promoting the use of taggants.