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After the tragic bombing in Boston several posts on Facebook drew my attention. One, in particular, led me to search for more information. The Facebook fan page known as “OccupyTheNRA” posted this graphic. It addresses the use of something called "taggants" which can be used to enhance our ability to both detect bombs and identify the source after detonation. Before seeing this graphic, I was unaware of taggant technology.

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I reposted this image on the LA Progressive Facebook fan page while I continued to search for more information on the technology - figuring that I was probably not the only one who didn't know we had the ability to trace the source of bombs after they've exploded and also figuring that the LA Progressive readership would want to know more about this technology particularly in the wake of the Boston bombing.

Here is what I've learned so far. According to several sources including the Institute of Makers of Explosives (IME), tagging refers to the incorporation of marking agents when manufacturing explosives. Some make a distinction between the terms taggants and markers but the underlying purpose for using these agents is:

  • to detect a bomb before detonation
  • to trace the origins of a bomb after detonation

Detection taggants are used to enhance the detection of explosives before the bomb explodes. Although I haven't been able to confirm this, I'm thinking these markers make it easier for bomb sniffing dogs to detect bombs. did a piece on this.

Identification taggants, according to the IME, are used to make it possible to trace explosive materials after detonation back to the source of the bomb (this includes possible identification of several players in the supply chain – manufacturers, wholesalers and possibly customers).

In 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton proposed mandating the use of "taggants" to trace bomb-making material as part of his counterterrorism proposal.

It wasn't immediately clear to me how these taggants could be used to trace the bombs back to the explosives' customer but according to the piece in the LA Times, dynamite, gun powder and other explosives are infused with indestructible microscopic chips that can later be used to trace back to the bomb's origin. I later learned that there was a proposed reporting requirement that would have made it incumbent upon the retailer or distributor to report who the explosives were sold to. This was one of the major sticking points for the National Rifle Association (NRA) who contended that this tracing technology is a de facto form of federal weapons registration.

In a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Paul Feldman reported:

“Technology to help investigators trace the origin of explosives after bombings such as the one in Oklahoma City was developed more than 15 years ago, but the National Rifle Assn. and others, citing safety concerns, have lobbied successfully over the years to block its implementation.”

Clearly, taggant technology has been around for many years. The debate over whether to require explosives manufacturers to use it has pitted federal law enforcement authorities against the powerful lobbies of some explosive manufacturing groups, the National Mining Association (NMA), the IME and the NRA.

The NMA cited three major reasons for opposing legislation that would mandate the use of identification taggants

  • It is unproven technology
  • Other countries don't require it
  • The costs do not currently appear to be justified

The National Mining Association, by its own admission, is the nation's primary procurer of commercial explosives.

As stated, the Institute of Makers of Explosives also opposes legislation that would mandate identification tagging. Here is the IMEs position which is posted on their site:

  • IME supports all law enforcement efforts to combat the illegal use of explosives.
  • The concept of identification tagging is attractive, but has never been proven safe or practical.
  • Known taggant technologies pose safety, environmental, and utility problems.
  • Less than 2 percent of the bombings in the United States involve commercial explosives.
  • Identification tagging is minimally beneficial to law enforcement and could complicate bombing investigations and prosecutions.
  • The much-touted Swiss taggant program is not an effective model for a U.S. program and has not been successful in apprehending or deterring bombers in Switzerland.
  • The substantial costs associated with identification taggants have never been justified by the minimal benefits to law enforcement.

Although I've only noted the IME and NMA's positions, the NRA and others opposing the taggant requirement spout similar justifications for their opposition however, as I continued to dig for information, I found that the primary driver for their opposition is most likely the one they generally list last - COST.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) -the federal law enforcement organization responsible for investigation and prevention of the unlawful use of explosives - has maintained that if it weren't for opposition from gun and explosives lobbyists, taggants could have been used to help solve many bomb attacks including the Oklahoma City bombing, the long-unsolved Unabomber serial attacks, the World Trade Center car bombing and a host of others.

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Acknowledging that the proposal to require taggants was generally viewed as helpful by the law enforcement community, back in 1980 (note that this precedes the Clinton proposal) the Senate Committee on Gonvernmental Affairs asked the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility of requiring commercial explosives and gunpowders to be manufactured with taggants.

The OTA conducted the assessment and produced a 267 page report. You can find it here. Two issues jumped out at me right away as I was reading the OTA report:

  • Great information. What the heck happened to the OTA?
  • The cost of implementing a mandatory taggant program is not going to sit well with the NRA, IME, MNA and other letters of the alphabet

A brief Wikipedia search provided the answer to my first question. Here's an excerpt from the OTA Wikipedia entry:

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an office of the United States Congress from 1972 to 1995. OTA's purpose was to provide Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues of the late 20th century, i.e. technology assessment.

In addition to the taggant study, OTA produced about 750 studies on a wide range of topics, including health care, global climate change, and polygraphs. Even though the agency was launched under the Nixon administration by the time Reagan took office Republicans had begun to look at the OTA unfavorably calling it an unnecessary agency. During Newt Gingrich's speakership, Congress de-funded OTA. The agency was closed in September 1995 during the Clinton administration when Gingrich was Speaker. The closure was highly criticized. A Republican reprenstative, Amo Houghton was quoted, "we are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology."

According to Wikipedia, during the 2008 Presidential Primary campaign, Hillary Clinton pledged to restore the OTA if she were elected.

So back to the cost issue -- page 100 of the OTA taggant assessment marks the beginning of its 40 page cost assessment. Their detailed review of the potential cost and economic impacts of a taggant program includes discussion of the estimated costs that will be incurred by the explosive manufacturers, distributors, and end users.

The report includes both nonrecurring costs as well as possible recurring costs such as additional recordkeeping by the manufacturer, by wholesalers, distributors and retailers and the costs associated with changes in the manufacturing process, due to possible tooling costs and to the labor costs associated with purchasing, controlling, and using the taggants. Examples of one-time costs that were accounted for were those associated with product requalification tests for safety, potential costs for waste disposal equipment, and added plant capacity to make up for lost productivity.

Could it be that it all boils down to cost? Could it be that today, as Boston is recovering from the horrific acts of who knows who, it could have been possible to identify and apprehend the perpetrator(s) in a much more efficient and expedient way but the cost of employing tracing technology was more than the industries wanted to bear? I can't answer that question with certainty but with the information I've gleaned so far -- I'm inclined to say, yes.

sharon kyle

Sharon Kyle


The National Mining Association Position on Taggants

The Institute of Makers of Explosives Position on Taggants

National Commission on Terrorists Attacks on the United States

The National Rifles Association Institute for Legislative Action

The Los Angeles Times

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Tuesday, 16 April 2013