Monday Morning Skeptic: Questioning Authority In The Sprawling Boston Bombing Case

A glib article published in the Boston Globe on July 27 suggested that those who question the opaque law enforcement narrative about the Boston Marathon bombing have a screw loose.

“There are those,” the writer begins, ”who believe the bombs and blood were staged, the amputees and others injured were actors in some kind of Hollywood production designed to justify martial law.”

David Abel’s lead is a splendid Straw Man ploy: dismiss an idea by seizing upon an absurd exaggeration, like looking at a reflection in a funhouse mirror.

For validation, Abel quotes Jeanne Kempthorne, a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer who worked from 1992 to 2003 as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. She slapped aside skeptics.

“It’s just human nature,” Kempthorne told the paper. “There will always be flat-earthers or grassy knoll types, people who will go to great lengths to dispute the obvious or find conspiracies or come up with evidence-free speculation.”But what she calls evidence-free speculation others call collaborative deduction.

A fast-forward evolution is happening in criminal justice as citizen gumshoes use the Internet and social media to wheedle out clues and, yes, even evidence.

In one instructive example, a blogger named Alexandria Goddard used evidence collected from social media to help expose the sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl last summer in Steubenville, Ohio.

“The authorities” view this as meddling by amateurs. But online gatecrashing by “grassy knoll types” is certain to increase as law enforcement agencies like the FBI, once viewed as virtually infallible, have grown increasingly furtive, under cover of the surveillance state.

We asked Martin Garbus, one of the country’s premier constitutional attorneys, about the issue of public trust for law enforcers. He suggested that Americans have been taught a lesson by recent revelations of wholesale spying on citizens by the National Security Agency.

“There is no more reason to think that the FBI will do the right thing,” Garbus told us, “than there is to think that the NSA will do the right thing.”

William Keating seems to agree, and he doesn’t seem like a kook. He is a Democratic U.S. Congressman who represents southeast Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, New Bedford and Plymouth. But he has respectful skepticism about law enforcement, learned on the job.

Like Kempthorne, Keating is a former prosecutor, having served 12 years as district attorney for Norfolk County, Massachusetts, before he was elected to Congress in 2010. He is a member of both the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees.

For three months, Keating has doggedly pursued answers about the Boston bombing from the FBI. He wants to know when the FBI recognized that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the dead bombing suspect, was a threat to national security and why it did not share its intelligence with the Boston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.

It would be charitable to describe the Bureau’s response as “less than forthcoming.”

So on July 31, Keating sent a wrathful three-page, 1,200 word letter letter to James Comey, the newly confirmed FBI director, demanding answers to seven questions related to the bombing investigation. Keating, who traveled to Russia in late May to investigate the case on his own, said he found the Russian intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, to be more forthcoming than the FBI.

Keating complained that the FBI has three times declined invitations to appear before the House Homeland Security Committee to answer questions publicly. And in an Orwellian plot twist, FBI officials replied the next day–but not by contacting Keating. They planted a response in the New York Times.

The story begins, “The F.B.I. has concluded that there was little its agents could have done to prevent the Boston Marathon bombings, according to law enforcement officials, rejecting criticism that it could have better monitored one of the suspects before the attack.”

In other words, no mistakes were made.

Unnamed agency officials told the newspaper that the FBI has no intention of conducting an internal investigation. Nor, apparently, does it intend to cooperate with Keating’s committee.

If the congressman was seething when he sent the letter to Comey, he must have been apoplectic when he saw the response in the Times—by agency officials who were allowed by the newspaper to push back against the people’s representatives while remaining anonymous.

This has become a pattern for the FBI. Information is channeled without specific attribution through the major media, especially via John Miller, a CBS correspondent who once served as the agency’s spokesman. Often, the information has been flatly wrong.

One example was the New York Times’ report on April 22 about the weapons used by the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. One paragraph read:

“Along with determining that the suspects had made at least five pipe bombs, the authorities recovered four firearms that they believe the suspects used, according to a law enforcement official. The authorities found an M-4 carbine rifle — a weapon similar to ones used by American forces in Afghanistan — on the boat where the younger suspect was found Friday night in Watertown, Mass.”

The same story cited a “senior United States official” as describing a gunshot wound to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s neck as “close-range, self-inflicted style.”

Two days later, an Associated Press story—again citing unnamed officials—reported that the brothers had had a single gun, a 9mm pistol, and that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was unarmed as local, state and federal law enforcers peppered his boat hideout with dozens of shots.

The April 22 story in the Times was corrected twice. One error concerned the geographic relationship of Watertown to Boston. The second clarified the use of the Miranda Warning exception used in the case. But the totally fallacious inventory of weapons was not corrected, and those details are still found in the electronic version of the story in the Times archive.

In fact, mistakes were made. Lots of them—and on more than a few significant aspects of the story.

But do such details really matter?

If you believe in the infallibility of the FBI, probably not. (The agency regards itself as infallible, as this perceptive –dare one say “skeptical”?– New York Times story about the FBI’s remarkable perfect record of faultlessness in agent-involved shootings dating to 1993.)

But the Boston Marathon bombing investigation has bloomed into a complex filigree of related inquiries—from the unsolved triple murder in 2011 in drowsy Waltham, Mass., to the rare “shelter-in-place” order and live-TV posse search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on April 19, to the puzzling FBI-agent shooting death in Florida of an unarmed friend of the Tsarnaevs who might have been able to answer crucial questions–had he lived.

Yes, details matter because they often can reveal larger truths.

So WhoWhatWhy joins flat-earthers like the American Civil Liberties Union and Congressman William Keating in asking questions that deserve answers.

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