Concrete lesson of the snipers

Former Montgomery County, Md., police chief Charles Moose’s book on last year’s sniper shootings has hit the bookstands. Moose’s tears and tirades moved many Americans during the round-the-clock coverage of the killings. “Three Weeks in October” reveals little or nothing about the investigation that resulted in the capture of the two sniper suspects.

But Moose’s book — and this week’s anniversary of the sniper shootings — is a good prompt to recall the lessons of the brutal killings. The sniper rampage was one of the clearest tests of the ability of the new, “improved” post-September 11, 2001, law enforcement to respond to a perceived terrorist attack. President Bush announced on Oct. 14, 2002:

“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.” Mr. Bush declared the attacks were “a form of terrorism.” More than 700 FBI agents were involved in the case.

Despite the high priority Mr. Bush gave the case, the FBI’s response showed the same allergy to modern technology which, according to the congressional Joint Intelligence Committee report, contributed to the FBI’s failure to detect the September 11 hijack conspiracy.

After panic erupted over the first shootings, FBI trainees were brought in to staff the telephone tip lines at the Montgomery County, Md., police headquarters. The FBI, scorning the technological revolutions of the last half-century, relied on the same tried-and-true methods the bureau used to catch targets like 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 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 tip line operators 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.”

Shortly after the arrest of the two suspects, 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” 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.

Several eyewitnesses reported to police they had seen an old Chevrolet Caprice at the scenes of shootings, but police scorned their reports. Police spotted the snipers’ ratty blue car and recorded its out-of-state license plates at least 10 different times during the month of the killings; the vehicle was reportedly stopped or seen five times at roadblocks established immediately after shootings. But the police ignored the suspects.

Months before the sniper rampage began, five different people in Washington state contacted the FBI to report their suspicions about alleged sniper 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 a 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 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 cable television leak regarding the license plate and car description that directly led to the apprehension of the suspects.

The bungling response to the snipers is a reminder that nothing happened on September 11, 2001, to make the government more competent. Neither of the two sniper suspects would have qualified for admission to med school to become brain surgeons. Far more damage could have done by a clique of savvy, well-trained foreigner snipers.

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