Misinformation and Anxiety in Boston Terrorism Investigation

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.