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Misinformation and Anxiety in Boston Terrorism Investigation

April 17th, 2013 - 5:58 pm

Misinformation rather than enlightenment has been the order of the day in the investigation of Monday’s terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon. The anxiety stemming from the attack and the stream of inaccurate news about it is further freighted, moreover, by the FBI’s confirmation that two letters addressed to top political officials — President Obama and Senator Richard Wicker (R., MS) — tested positive for ricin, a deadly poison. As noted below, a man identified as Kenneth Curtis of Tupelo, Mississippi, has reportedly been arrested in connection with the mailings.

Early this afternoon, massive confusion was generated when mainstream media outlets first reported that an arrest had been made in the bombing case, then retracted that claim. CNN, in particular, kept insisting there had been an arrest even after other press agencies denied it. When all was said and done, though, it appeared that no suspect had even been in police custody, much less been formally charged — and that perhaps no suspect has even been identified yet.

This is a common phenomenon in the high profile investigations that follow terrorist attacks. The investigators actually working the case would rather there were no disclosures made about the status of the investigation. At this point, their work is best done in secret — or, at least, as much secrecy as is possible. Otherwise, any conspirators who may not already have fled will be alerted that it’s time to skip town, destroy evidence, and intimidate witnesses. These investigative agencies actually work for the public, however, and the public has an extraordinarily high level of interest in the progress of the case. Thus the agencies have official press agents whose job it is to keep the public reasonably informed without compromising investigative leads and tactics — not an easy job.

Then there is the most unruly and damaging dynamic in the equation: the media and its anonymous law-enforcement sources. It seems every media outlet is in a rabid competition to be first, rather than most accurate, with every breaking development. This combines toxically with the fact that sources who hide behind anonymity — precisely because they are not supposed to be running off at the mouth — have widely varying levels of knowledge about the actual goings-on in the case.

Couple this with the fact that most journalists and many agents are not well-versed in the esoterica of the justice system — in which, for example, “arrest” is different from “custody”; a “suspect” is different from a “person of interest”; and “detention” is different from “apprehension” — and you have the roadmap to error-ridden reporting. The problem is not that reporters and sources are intentionally misleading the public. It is that their information is both less reliable than they think it is and easily given to miscommunication. A potential witness’s voluntary submission to a law-enforcement interview could be mistaken for a suspect’s surrender to police custody. Solid leads on a potential bomber based on video and forensic evidence could be miscommunicated as a solid identification of a suspect. The issuance of an arrest warrant for a person not in custody could be miscommunicated as an actual arrest.

In most circumstances, this would not create torrents of misinformation. Reporters would corroborate new information through multiple, independent sources (rather than dependent sources who may just be echoing the same bad information). They would refrain from publishing until they were sure. But what is happening in Boston is not normal. It is a frenzy. And even worse than its effect of confusing and angering the public is the help it gives the terrorists. The leak-generated misinformation puts pressure on investigative agencies to correct the record; these public corrections give the terrorists insights into the state of the investigation that they would not otherwise have. It makes them harder to catch. It makes critical evidence harder to obtain.

At this moment, we are in no better position than we were yesterday to provide informed hypotheses about who may have carried out the bombing attack and why. We don’t know what the investigators know, but on our state of information, it would be irresponsible to discount the possibility that this is an instance of jihadist terror. Of course, other ideological motivations cannot be ruled out, either. My point is that it is ludicrous to enforce a politically correct filter in which the most plausible explanation must not be spoken on pain of being cast out as a racist “Islamophobe,” yet every other theory, no matter how half-baked, is given a respectful airing.

We know that jihadists tend to target predominantly non-Muslim civilian populations with mass destruction weapons, as was done in Boston on Monday. In addition, their preferred weapon for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the improvised explosive device (IED) — the kind of home-made bomb that is recommended by al Qaeda’s Inspired Magazine and that often employs “pressure cookers” of the sort used in two recent jihadist terror attacks in the U.S. The attacks on Monday were by IEDs that featured pressure cookers. None of that proves that the Boston Marathon bombing is the work of jihadists, but it does underscore that — absent hard information pointing in a different direction — it is entirely reasonable to suspect that this is the case and to investigate accordingly.

By contrast, we haven’t had much “anti-government” terrorism but when we’ve had it — e.g., the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — it tends to be targeted at government installations, not civilians. And historically, the radical Left is far more wedded to violent “direct action” than conservative movements like the Tea Party, which has no history of violence. It should go without saying that we have had terrorists of varying political stripes, and even of no coherent political persuasion. Therefore, no radical ideology that urges violence should be ruled out at this point when, apparently, no perpetrators have been identified. How strange, though, that what experience suggests are the least likely scenarios — conservatives or anti-government extremists striking savagely at their defenseless fellow citizens — are being embraced seriously (even wistfully) by some media pundits, while one must walk on eggshells to describe scenarios whose proving out would surprise no one.

Finally, and eerily reminiscent of the post-9/11 anthrax scare, is the discovery that letters addressed to the president and Senator Wicker (so far) contained a granular substance that has, according to the FBI, “preliminarily tested positive for ricin.” NBC News has just reported that federal agents have arrested a Mississippi man, Kenneth Curtis, in connection with the mailings (which were signed, “I am KC and I approve of this message.”).

At least at this early stage, investigators are said to believe that there is no connection between the mailings and Monday’s bombing in Boston. That certainly sounds like a reasonable conclusion under the circumstances: Putting aside that Curtis is from Mississippi, the letters were postmarked in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 8 — a week before the bombing in Boston; and more testing and investigation are necessary before the feds can confidently conclude that the substance involved is actually ricin and that it was intentionally conveyed by the sender. Until there is certainty that the two incidents are unrelated, though, the lines of communication between the two investigations must remain open.

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All Comments   (20)
All Comments   (20)
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I agree the media followed this story far too closely than was good for anybody. Reporting real facts is fine, but the continuous reporting in the 1st 24 hrs, when nothing was really known yet, got a bit rediculous. Far better to just do regular programming, and break in when they actually have something tangible, like a police briefing. And I noticed Fox News was just as guilty on this as the rest of the MSM.
Mind you, once the police put out the pictures of the suspects, and then when one of them got captured, that deserved to be instant news, but before that the endless speculation, absent any real facts, got realy boring, and was a turnoff for me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Going to have to call shenanigans on the vocabulary claim. Suspect, subject, and person of interest are synonyms.

Arrest and detention are synonyms as well. Well, actually detention can mean time after school as well, but aside from a Terry Stop, a detention and an arrest are the same. They mean that law enforcement has stopped a person and that person is not free to go. It may be as simple as a traffic stop where a person is not free to go but reasonably expects to go free, to a Terry Stop where a police officer has detained a person who is not free to go based on reason suspicion based on articulable facts that a crime has occurred, will occur or is occurring, to where a person has been told he/she is under arrest and been taken for an arraignment, initial appearance or whatever before a judicial official.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
some nutjobs ginned up by the massive pr generated by muslim oil money. islamic influence slithers in to our zeitgeist day and night. savage bigoted beasts and the same can be said, must be said of their "supporters".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
From Counterpounch by Barry Lando America the Blind
"After all, what could be more cowardly than for some unknown, unseen, unannounced killer to blow apart and maim innocent men women and children, without any risk to himself.

But, if that be the definition of cowardice, what could be more cowardly, than the now cliché image of the button-down CIA officer agent driving to work in Las Vegas to assume his shift at the controls of a drone circling high over some dusty village on the other side of the world?

How different are the images produced by such attacks—shattered bodies, dismembered limbs, severed arteries, frantic aid givers and terrified survivors—how different from the moving images of the tragedy in Boston now being broadcast and rebroadcast on TV stations around the globe?

With those scenes in mind, I would ask you to read a portion of a blog on Drone Wars I posted a few weeks ago, citing the fact that over the past few years, U.S. drones have made mincemeat out of an estimated 3000 to 4000 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. At least 200 of them were children."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
footnote
The good news from the terrible Boston Marathon Bombing a rising star Elisabeth Warren could turn over the tables upon Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and people will support her because the agree with her coming message
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
God, I hope Elisabeth Warren is the nominee in 2016. Hilarity will ensue when Paul/Cruz/Rubio run against Fauxcahontas.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Targeted civilians instead of government offices, so not likely "anti-government."

Amateur job, so not likely from an organized international terror group.

My guess is a homegrown radicalized jihadist.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Makes sense.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, well. Apparently the "person of non-interest" of Saudi origin is sent back to Saudi Arabia.

And it only took a meeting between Ketchup Kerry, The Messiah and the Saudi ambassador. All meetings unscheduled, no press.

Nevermind the "person of non-interest" has AlQ relatives imprisoned at Gitmo, maybe his relatives would follow the same path.

'Da most transparent administration at work.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Not surprised by what you write, however, your inference is very serious, do you have any proof that you can present?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oh brother, Deborah F. on CNN has just tipped everyone off with an internet connection on who they're looking for -- all the while claiming it's just sooo important not to show the public the pictures of the suspects -- wasn't she the same one who gave out all those "helpful tips" on making bombs go off in Times Square?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, the good news is that the ricin letters can't be blamed on anybody from the tea party as everybody who lives in Tupelo, Mississippi are rabid democrat progressives -- I read that on the internet by a guy who is a french model. :)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wow, it turns out he IS a Democrat who seemed to have a beef about "government surveillance" (not saying that's a motive here), which sounds kinda like a progressive one, at that. Huh.

http://www.politisite.com/2013/04/17/who-is-paul-kevin-curtis-christian-democrat-independent/#.UW91JU1RtGg

http://www.punditpress.com/2013/04/paul-kevin-curtis-ricin-letter-suspect.html

http://www.sodahead.com/elvisguy4u/

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The guy loves Nugent and yammers about prayer not being in schools; it's a better fit with most of the posters here than claiming he's a garden variety lefty atheist.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Or the whole thing could have been engineered by David Axelrod, who did not waste a moment to point the finger at anti-tax "radicals" of the "far right" -- as if any such crime has ever occurred in American history. Makes you wonder if this wasn't some sort of progressive/liberal/leftist set up. Certainly these people have demonstrated too many times that the means justify their ends.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, chaos reigns (CNN showed the mass media line-up, the vast crowds of media, waiting at the court house, fully expecting to cover the "perp walk" -- when everyone thought the perp had been arrested and was enroute.) Might also add that certain (ahem!) analysts at CNN are providing far too much info which could be of use to the criminals...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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