The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

February 8, 2009

Cracking the case: ‘DOMEX’ system is tool used to analyze crime

When Baltimore authorities seized computers connected to a multimillion-dollar Internet pharmacy operation in late 2006, they turned to Johnstown for help.

Specialists at the National Drug Intelligence Center analyzed large amounts of electronic information, providing crucial evidence that led to two convictions in Maryland’s largest-ever pharmaceutical-trafficking case.

“I just cannot say enough about what they did with these computers,” said Andrea Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.

That same process has been repeated more than 700 times since 1993: NDIC analysts dissect computers, cell phones and other electronic devices – along with mountains of documents – to support federal criminal cases.

They’ve developed their own software to speed up the process and have quietly assisted in major probes, including the large-scale investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

At an agency that often is accused of being wasteful and duplicative, NDIC’s Document and Media Exploitation Branch – called DOMEX – is a little-known function that has had a significant impact across the nation and around the world, NDIC officials said.

“Nobody else does what we do,” said Harry Kuerner, DOMEX branch chief.

NDIC officials acknowledge that what they call “document exploitation” is nothing new: Analyzing information and evidence is a vital part of any criminal case.

But the difference in their work, they say, is speed and clarity.

A law-enforcement agency may have limited resources and time to examine large amounts of evidence, particularly data buried deep in a computer system.

But when a federal agency asks NDIC for help, a DOMEX team – usually made up of 18 to 23 people – forms and quickly establishes “priority intelligence requirements” – the slivers of information to look for when sifting through an evidentiary hay stack.

Examples include assets and associates of a suspect, financial transactions, phone numbers and “references to a specific crime in notes, e-mails or other communications,” officials said.

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