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Forgotten Lessons from the D.C. Sniper Rampage


A decade ago, the Washington, D.C., area was traumatized by two guys who rode around shooting people from the trunk of their ancient Chevrolet Caprice. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo have long since been convicted, and Muhammad was executed for the killings. But the media’s reaction to the official follies during that time should remind Americans to beware of any reporter lionizing law enforcement.

The sniper rampage presented one of the clearest tests of the ability of the new, “improved” law enforcement to respond to a perceived terrorist attack. Federal agencies had been flooded with new funding after 9/11, and the snipers’ rampage was the ideal chance for them to strut their stuff. That rampage continued for 23 days despite the efforts of the feds’ “best and brightest” and local and state police.

George W. Bush announced on October 14, 2002, “I weep for those who’ve lost their loved ones…. We’re lending all the resources of the Federal Government, all that have been required, to do everything we can to assist the local law authorities to find this — whoever it is.” He declared that the attacks were “a form of terrorism.” The Washington Post reported that “several law enforcement and government officials said federal agencies are making all the important decisions” in the pursuit of the killers. More than 700 FBI agents were involved in the case.

After panic erupted over the first shootings, FBI trainees were brought in to staff the telephone tip lines at the Montgomery County, Maryland, police headquarters. The FBI, scorning the technological revolutions of the last half century, relied on the same tried-and-true methods the bureau had used to catch targets such as John Dillinger in the 1930s. The Washington Post reported,

Authorities said information is taken down by hand on forms that make multiple carbon copies. Copies are sorted and marked “immediate,” “priority” or “routine.” Tips that concern Montgomery County are put in one pile, Fairfax in another, Richmond in a third. FBI employees then drive the paperwork out to police in those locations. The system handling the huge volume of leads, dubbed “Rapid Start” in the days after Sept. 11, is anything but that, say some police and FBI sources who have called it “Rapid Stop.”

The Post noted complaints by numerous lawmen that “the FBI’s problems handling thousands of phone tips are slowing and hampering the probe.”

When the FBI trainees were not laboriously scrawling down the latest tip, they were busy hanging up on the snipers. In a note attached to a tree after the ninth shooting, the snipers complained that operators at the tip line had hung up on them five times. The note denounced police “incompitence” [sic] and declared, “We have tried to contact you to start negotiation. These people took [our] calls for a hoax or a joke, so your failure to respond has cost you five lives.” Susan Paisner, a Maryland criminologist, noted,

At least one of the snipers apparently tried several times [when calling the tip line] to identify himself through the words “Call me God” — a tarot card left behind at one crime scene referred to the killer as “God” — and was blithely dismissed. It made him so frustrated he even wrote to the police about it…, but if his complaints resulted in the hotline staff receiving more training, we weren’t told about it. The people answering the hotline should at least have been instructed to pay rapt attention to any caller using the word “God” in reference to himself, and to keep those callers on the line.

Mishandled clues

At the scene of an Ashland, Virginia, shooting, the killers left a note with a demand for money in a ziplock bag. But, as Dateline NBC summarized a year later, “The note is taken off to be examined for prints and forensic evidence but … there’s another misstep. Somehow no one seems to read the note, the part where the snipers say they’ll call the Ponderosa Restaurant at 6 AM the next morning. The sniper’s deadline is missed.” In this sense, the lawmen on the scene and their superiors acted as if they were congressmen — people too important to stoop to reading mere words.

The FBI and the police dismally failed to exploit the bevy of clues in the note and in the other material in the ziplock bag. If the note had been publicized — like the Unabomber’s manifesto — savvy citizens could have fingered at least one of the culprits much sooner.

Shortly after the arrest of the two suspects, Washington, D.C., Police Chief Charles Ramsey publicly confessed, “We were looking for a white van with white people, and we ended up with a blue car with black people.” The only “evidence” that the killers were white was the dogma of FBI and other serial-killer profilers. The fixation on white killers spurred police to disregard several witness reports about darker-skinned murder suspects.

Unfollowed leads

Several eyewitnesses reported to police that they had seen an old Chevrolet Caprice at the scenes of shootings, but police scorned their reports. They spotted the snipers’ ratty blue car and recorded its out-of-state license plates at least ten different times during the month of the killings; the vehicle was reported to have been stopped or seen five times at roadblocks established immediately after shootings. But because they were searching for a white van or truck, police disregarded the suspects again and again. One federal investigator later complained, “The car was screaming, ‘Stop me.’ It’s dilapidated. It’s got Jersey tags. It’s got a homemade window tint.”

John Poindexter, Bush’s Total Information Awareness czar, declared that the sniper case illustrated how the Total Information Awareness surveillance could have helped the police more quickly narrow the search to the suspect’s car. Poindexter’s attempt to invoke the sniper rampage to justify far greater surveillance was ludicrous, considering that the killers could have easily been caught earlier with relatively ancient technology. The computer system already existed 40 years ago that could have easily put out the list of the most suspicious vehicles in the wake of the shootings and roadblocks: an IBM mainframe computer that relied on punch cards. It would have been a simple operation to key in the data and run the cards through the machine to get a list of the most frequent vehicles at shooting sites —and then to question each of a few dozen vehicle owners.

Months before the sniper rampage began, five different people in Washington state contacted the FBI to report their suspicions about John Allen Muhammad’s comments about killing police, his interest in buying silencers for his rifle, and his visit to a gunsmith to inquire about modifying the rifle to make it more easily concealed. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was also contacted repeatedly. The FBI and ATF disregarded all the warnings.

The feds and local police, instead of using common sense and analyzing excellent leads, brought in Pentagon spy planes to canvas the entire Washington area. The use of the RC-7 planes may have been a breach of the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits using the military for domestic law enforcement) but all that mattered was assuring frightened people that the government cared and was taking action. The planes provided no information that aided the apprehension of the suspects.

Federal agents and Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose sought to keep a tight grip on key information regarding the case. But it was a leak that led directly to the apprehension of the snipers. News media had been listening to police scanners and, on October 23, heard the renewed suspicions about the Caprice. Both MSNBC and CNN broadcast the license plate and car description hours before Chief Moose went public with the information. Within six hours of the media’s “leaking” the license plate number, an alert citizen phoned in a tip that the suspects’ car was at an Interstate rest stop in Frederick County, Maryland.

The bungling response to the snipers was a reminder that nothing happened on 9/11 to make the government more competent. Neither of the two sniper suspects would have qualified for admission to med school to become brain surgeons.

Yet, despite all the law-enforcement belly flops during the sniper rampage, the media insisted on conferring sainthood on Chief Moose. Federal lawmen were also treated as saviors. Part of this media slant was the result of the media’s desperation for interviews with and leaks from law-enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, many viewers are unaware of how vigorously some media outlets grovel for “exclusives” from even the most incompetent government agency. And the FBI has known how to exploit media cravenness for at least 60 years.

The media showed the same caliber of unquestioning deference to the Pentagon prior to and in the first years after the invasion of Iraq. Stories that exposed official lies or pervasive abuses simply did not make it into print or on the air. It was only in subsequent years — after Iraq had clearly become a quagmire — that the media found the gumption to point out obvious failures. In times of crisis, citizens need to find their own independent news sources. Or, at a minimum, check multiple sources and develop their own nose for official tripe. The closer the media get to the government, the more tainted the “news” becomes.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.