Shutting up the FBI
The FBI's public posturing in the matter of the Boston Bombing is like watching the hundredth rerun of a bad movie. "Stand between the FBI and a press conference" the old saying goes, and you'll "get run over like leaf debris." But what's most alarming about the FBI's obsession with their "Bureau's" public image is all the private damage it does.
Remember security guard Richard Jewell, who discovered the bomb set at the Atlanta Olympics and saved many bystander lives? A legitimate hero. But desperate to be seen solving this high profile case, the FBI focused on Jewell and without any evidence at all, constructed a custom "psychological profile" that force-fit him with the crime instead of the other way round. Deliberate FBI leaks then painted him as a wannabe cop, a loser who wanted to cast himself into a rescue role then opined that nails found in a search of his home were "similar" to this used in the bomb.
And so, in this smarmy manner -- news conference followed by leak followed by news conference followed by leak -- the FBI destroyed Richard Jewell while the real culprit, Eric Rudolph, evaded them for years despite their one-million dollar reward and the deployment of all manner of Federal resources. Indeed, Rudolf wound up being arrested not by the FBI at all but by the Murphy, North Carolina Police Department.
Then there's the anthrax attack at the time of 9/11, in which FBI relentless news leaks and press conferences wrecked bio-weapons expert Steven Hatfill's life. Done with Hatfill, the FBI focused on Bruce Edwards Ivins, who became so upset by the gratuitous pursuit that he committed suicide. While a later review of the FBI's "evidence" by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there were insufficient grounds to conclude the anthrax came from Ivins' lab, guess what? It didn't bring him back to life.
Then of course there's the big one: the FBI burying the report of one of their agents that some very strange people were taking flight lessons prior to 9/11. And the other big one: the revelation that "Deep Throat" the most famous leaker of all time, was an assistant director of the FBI.
One could go on and on citing examples of mindless FBI overreach or stupid thinking, but let's mention just one more example out of last week's news.
With immense media coverage, Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth Mississippi was arrested by the FBI for sending ricin-laced letters to various public officials. Then within days Curtis was cut loose. Quoting AP: "... FBI Agent Brandon Grant testified that Friday searches of [Paul Kevin Curtis] Curtis' vehicle and house in Corinth, Miss., found no ricin, ingredients for the poison, or devices used to make it. A search of Curtis' computers found no evidence he researched making ricin."
The AP also reported that no fingerprints incriminating Curtis were found on the letters. Indeed the FBI opinion that Curtis was their man seemed to have no substantive basis other than the fact that Curtis could have gotten to the post office from which the letters were mailed.
But could the FBI let it go? No, because in their eyes they can never, ever be wrong and so, just as in the case of Richard Jewell, they have to take another egregious shot with a statement by Agent Grant that "[t]here was no apparent ricin, castor beans or any material there that could be used for the manufacturing, like a blender or something," Grant testified. Then he speculated that Curtis "could have thrown away the processor."
How low can you go? You're guilty if you own a blender and guilty if you don't? But that's the FBI.
So what does it take to shut these guys up?
Some time ago a cop who did his twenty in the six six precinct in Brooklyn told me a story about the extreme measures sometimes required.
There was a high-profile homicide in the precinct attracting national attention with some angle that convinced the FBI that they should assume control of the case -- and of course manage the attendant publicity to their benefit. It was before the age of computers and FBI agents entered the detective squad and ignoring protests simply opened the file drawers and removed the pertinent files. They even rummaged through detective's desks for more documentation. No guns were drawn but at least one NYPD detective was threatened with arrest on federal charges and had to be restrained by his fellows.
There followed a flurry of news conferences in which the FBI presented the leads developed by NYPD detectives as their own work product, accompanied by any number of leaks to the press which pointed the finger at some innocent people. So when protests up the chain-of-command of the NYPD proved of no avail, one senior detective decided to take matters into his own hands.
He followed the New York SAC (the FBI Special Agent in Charge for New York) and took surveillance photos of him at night in various difficult to identify locations. He then faked a file containing some of the photos which reported the SAC as an "unidentified individual" who entered a restaurant men's room in the company of a known homosexual prostitute tied to the murder case.
The senior then leaked the existence of the file to a reporter he knew was in bed with the Feds, it was grabbed by the FBI and surprise, surprise, the next day all FBI interest in the case evaporated.
Is this story true? I have no idea. It would make a great "Law & Order" episode. But the fact that the story even exists, and got told, tells us something about how some local law enforcement views the Federal behemoth. Because stranger things have happened.
Like the case of Whitey Bulger.
Sixteen years on the run from the FBI during which Bulger had the sense to avoid Murphy, North Carolina, instead sunning himself day after day on the Santa Monica pier. Although he crossed the international border into Mexico innumerable times, the FBI still couldn't catch him. Or wouldn't, because as it turns out Bulger's gang had penetrated the FBI, instead of the other way around. Indeed Bulger could be described as a criminal double agent. Eventually, as we all know, there was a tip (the reward the FBI offered was $2.1 million) which calls to mind Michael Connelly's crack that "the FBI doesn't solve crimes, it pays informants." But in any event, the FBI got him but only long years after news of corruption in the FBI's Boston office would mean very much to the public at large.
So even there, we find a suspicion of media management.
And it was with that case sticking in her craw that Boston Globe Columnist Joan Vennochi wrote this just the month before last:
To mark the 23rd anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless paintings [from the Gardner Museum], federal investigators called a surprise press conference. They have identified the culprits, they said, and could trace the whereabouts of the paintings up until about a decade ago. Now they are going public in hopes of generating tips that could lead to the stolen artwork.
What's wrong with this picture?
I'll tell you what's wrong. It's that the FBI is unable to solve the case and so is going to leak names to their friends in the media. Again. Wreck somebody else's life -- again. All with no evidence to back them up.
If none of this has happened yet, it's probably because their wits were distracted by the Boston Marathon bombing and the possibilities that opened up for a long succession of news conferences covered by the press of fifty countries.
Yet even the Boston Bombing case is another PR disaster. Because the Russians warned them about these guys and the FBI interviewed them and blew the Russians off. After all, what do the Russians know about Chechen terrorists? But the FBI tells us "don't worry, they're on top of it," and have uncovered a sleeper cell of twelve. Oh wait, no we haven't. Oh wait, we've arrested the bomber's college friends for lying and destroying evidence, so maybe there is a conspiratorial cell after all...
Pssstt -- want to hear some names connected to the Gardner Museum heist twenty-three years ago? Don't quote me, but make sure you spell "FBI" correctly...
It's a comedy. Any thinking adult should know less is often more. Let the locals soak up the limelight, they do most of the work and solve most of the crimes. Let the local police chief announce he's getting FBI help and thank them instead of the other way round. Remember the guests who took the head of the table at the feast and were put down to the foot when the truly humble were brought forward? That's really the way life works.
And stop spreading scandal -- that's not what we pay you for.
Because as it stands now, real cops laugh at them behind their backs, local politicians are forever suspicious of the FBI's motives, and other federal agencies don't mind taking them down a peg, and sometimes do.
Why incur this enmity? These enemies? And what will it really take to make these guys shut up? For good?
Only executive action, it seems. Some president sometime has to tell the FBI, "for your own benefit and in the interests of amity, I don't want to see your face. After an investigation is successfully concluded and if you did the bulk of the work and arrested the miscreant yourself, then you're allowed to conduct the press conference, and if you didn't do these things, you are take the furthest row in the back. The occasions in while you are brought forward will count far more in the public's mind than this mindless preening you're addicted to."
"Oh and by the way, smear any other citizen and you'll be the ones making a perp walk."
Richard F. Miniter is a former local Police Chief who lives and writes about many issues in the colonial era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York. He is the author of The Things I Want Most, BDD - Random House, and the father of six. He blogs at richardfminiterblog.com and can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.