2018 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Blake Douglas Rowe

Established sophisticated forensic exploitation laboratories to investigate terrorist activities, contributing to thousands of convictions and thwarting attempts to attack Americans overseas and in the U.S.

After an Afghan citizen applied to work at a U.S. military base in his war-torn nation in 2015, a biometric analysis matched his DNA and fingerprints to three previously recovered improvised explosive devices, leading to the individual’s arrest and conviction. 

This analysis, which thwarted the enemy’s attempt to infiltrate the U.S military base in Afghanistan and likely saved American lives, was the direct result of sophisticated and carefully planned forensic capabilities established by Blake Rowe at multiple locations throughout the world.

Rowe has used the information collected from these forensic laboratories to create an accredited global DNA database that captures high-quality samples from overseas terrorism-related cases. This forensic information is shared with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community, and an arrangement is now in the works to make the data readily available to a wide range of domestic law enforcement organizations.

Since Rowe assumed leadership of the Forensic Exploitation Directorate at the Defense Forensic Science Center in 2010, his organization has worked on more than 33,000 cases, developed 52,000 DNA profiles and collected 74,000 latent prints—the impressions produced by human fingers, palms and soles of the feet. The center has added 3,600 individuals to national and tactical watch lists, and contributed to more than 2,500 convictions. 

“Blake Rowe has been the single driving force behind this work and had the vision of what it could be,” said Maj. Gen. David Glaser, who works with Rowe. “Thousands of attacks will not happen because of his efforts.”

After more than 25 years in intelligence and law enforcement with the Air Force, the Virginia State Police and the National Ground Intelligence Center, Rowe came to the Defense Forensic Science Center to develop a forensic exploitation capability for the military. The primary purpose was to help identify and neutralize those responsible for deploying improvised explosive devices that were killing and maiming American soldiers in places like Afghanistan. 

“This is not like in the old war movies where the bad guys always wear uniforms. Now people plant bombs and walk away,” said Evan Huelfer, deputy director of the Forensic Exploitation Directorate. “Remaining anonymous is the enemy’s greatest strength, and we had to strip away that anonymity through forensics.”

“When a device explodes in an overseas location where the labs are situated, the local military, law enforcement or U.S. personnel bring salvaged parts to be analyzed,” Huelfer said. “If the forensic analysis identifies a link to an individual, the host nation may go out and arrest the guy. Or if it’s a top-tier terrorist in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq, a Special Forces unit may go to kill or capture him.”

While Rowe’s initial goal was to assist the military in combat zones, he saw the potential to use forensic capabilities on a grander scale, building a globally focused mission that goes beyond the battlefield. 

During the past four years, Rowe has established mobile laboratories with forensic capabilities in locations around the world to support the U.S. military, law enforcement, the intelligence community and coalition partners. His organization has grown exponentially from one permanent employee to 132.

“He has been able to build the structure and create a model that is now global,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Bisacre. “We now have a capability in every region of the world and the results have been phenomenal. It has not only increased the capabilities of the Army, but prevents bad guys from entering the United States and has helped prosecute bad guys, including people on the terrorist watch lists.” 

In addition to establishing the forensic exploitation laboratories and creating arrangements to share the information, Rowe led the organization through a rigorous process to accredit these labs to international and FBI quality standards. This assures that valuable evidence collected can be used to support prosecutions in international courts, host countries and the United States.

“He saw a series of mistakes that were made. People couldn’t be prosecuted because they couldn’t use the evidence,” Glaser said. 

Rowe said the biggest hurdle he faced at the start was “proving the worth of the program” and getting buy-in from senior Defense Department officials. The program has achieved its primary goals of “identifying enemies operating in hostile environments, protecting the homeland and preventing bad actors from doing more damage,” he added.