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Friday, May 07, 2010

Why was law enforcement leaking so much about the Times Square bombing?

Andy McCarthy links to this story from NPR about the role that leaks from law enforcement officials investigating the Times Square bombing attempt. I remember listening to these stories earlier this week and wondering why they were making public such information about finding the VIN number on parts of the car and that they had traced the ownership of the vehicle to a man in Connecticut. Apparently, the reporters knew so much about the ongoing investigation that they could stake out the same locations that the police and FBI were staking out.
As one law enforcement official told NPR, "Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that's not good."

He said they watched in horror as news organizations started talking about the fact that the vehicle identification number on the Nissan Pathfinder used in the botched bombing had been taken off the windshield. Then another report said that wouldn't matter, as authorities could find the VIN on other parts of the car. A short time later, the fact that they had found the number was reported. The coverage was providing a lot of clues about the direction the case was going.

On Monday afternoon, basically a day-and-a-half after the attack, a news organization reported that law enforcement officials were looking for an American citizen of Pakistani descent from Shelton, Conn. (NPR also had the information but didn't report it out of concern that it would affect the investigation before Shahzad's arrest.)

Shahzad mentioned that news report after he was in police custody, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the case. He told the arresting officers that the moment he read it was the moment he knew it was only a matter of time before authorities would close in on him. He also assumed from the report that he was under surveillance.

That's an important detail, because surveillance is only effective if people don't know they are being watched. "It was like watching an episode of 24 in real time," a law enforcement official said. The only problem was that Shahzad was able to watch it, too.

Then it got worse: Reporters started showing up at Shahzad's house in Shelton, waiting for the arrest to happen. Shahzad was actually up the road at a ramshackle apartment he had rented in Bridgeport. That's where officers were watching him — but apparently that also was leaked. A TV reporter showed up there and waited.

For the arresting officers, there was another wrinkle. They knew from running Shahzad's name through databases that he had purchased a gun in March. If the suspect was following the media reports, he knew the noose was tightening and might try to shoot his way out. They had to fundamentally change how they were going to approach the house to prepare for that possibility.

But Shahzad surprised them by leaving the apartment. He went to a local supermarket and they lost track of him. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told NPR on Wednesday that they lost him for about three hours. When they finally caught up with Shahzad just before midnight Monday on a plane bound for Dubai, he smiled at the officers and said, "I've been expecting you. Are you NYPD or FBI?"
There is irresponsibility all around here. Law enforcement officials who leaked to the media should be fired. There is no excuse for that. Were they grandstanding to demonstrate that they were on top of things or just blabbing away? They lost this guy and only gwere lucky enough to get him as the plane was taxiing away from the airport. Wouldn't it have been easier to pick him up if he hadn't known that they were so close to tracking him down? And how did this guy get away if both law enforcement and the media had staked him out at his apartment? That's another goof-up that should be investigated.

I realize that there was tremendous public pressure to find out information about the investigation, but there is no excuse for giving away key information to the media that came close to throwing the whole game away. What if they had been too late to catch Shahzad at the airport and lost him simply because he could watch TV and realize how close he was to getting picked up?


NeoKong said...

Tracking a VIN number isn't exactly some sort of exotic investigative technique. Of course they are tracking the VIN number. What will be the next big law enforcement leak....? That they actually dusted the vehicle for finger prints or checked the plate....?
Not exactly a big secret.

tfhr said...


The information about the location of additional VIN numbers wasn't needed to report the story. Same with the technical details that have been released about the tracking of Shahzad's disposable cell phone.

Why make covering your tracks a point of instruction within the reporting of this story?

I believe Shahzad knew that his identity would be known but expected to be back in Pakistan by that time. Time is of the essence and by giving poorly trained operatives like Shahzad any advantage in the future only reduces our chances of detecting them in advance or capturing them if at all.

Knowing that he was planning on a return to life in Pakistan, do you think the media should divulge known or suspected details about his contacts there before or after they have been apprehended and/or questioned?