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As a result, its 694 staff handled 136,629 pieces of evidence and performed nearly 700,000 examinations in 1996. Nowhere more so than in the heart of the FBI lab, the Scientific Analysis Section.

Here, the traditional scientific paraphernalia -- the test tubes, gas tanks, and microscopes that recall school chemistry classes -- rub shoulders with infrared spectroscopes, Apple and Dell computers and neutron activators.

Here too is the Evidence Control Center, responsible for the receipt, assignment, and tracking of thousands of lab samples subjected to hundreds of thousands of examinations every year.

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Only if photos, tapes or handwritten notes come in as part of the evidence do such people have the faces, voices, or hands that make them real.

What the tourists see is actually just a fraction of what makes up the FBI's Laboratory Division.

Yet either way, whether the "soft" science of the traditional visual comparisons of two hairs, bullets or fingerprints, or the "hard" science of neutron activation analysis or DNA typing, forensic science cannot ultimately avoid the human factor.

The examiners who do the tests, run the machines and make the comparisons are only human.

The aging or reconstruction of faces of suspects or victims and the reconstruction of crime scenes is a specialty.

This section also prepares all forms of graphics or film used as exhibits at trial and the false credentials or documentation needed by FBI agents or informants for undercover work.

Passing the black-and-white photographic portraits of FBI directors and the rogue's gallery of the "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives," a narrow escalator takes visitors to the only working part of the FBI they will see on their visit -- the laboratory.

The sign that greets them proclaims: "61 years of Forensic Science Service, DNA: The Silent Witness." It's the sort of public relations exercise of which J.

Today, this section includes the specialist polygraph or "lie detector" unit, a computer analysis unit, a special photographic unit and specialists in analyzing racketeering records -- illegal gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, and money-laundering.

The Special Projects Section is even more diverse, with seven units that handle film, video and photographs of suspects or victims; the famous artists "impressions" of witnesses' descriptions of suspects; crime-scene plans; and now computer art and design.

As an examiner here, you never know what you are going to get -- it could be a rape one day, an explosion the next, and a product- tampering case the day after that.

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