Forgotten Lessons of the D.C. Sniper Rampage

From the Future of Freedom Foundation

Freedom Daily, April 2012

by James Bovard

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.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.


8 Responses to Forgotten Lessons of the D.C. Sniper Rampage

  1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm #

    Until the day they come to haul me away I will not understand the brainless deference and worship that Duh Voters bestow upon the State and its minions, despite countless repeated examples of its inability to do much of anything except nothing.

  2. Jim Bovard July 18, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    Aye, but you weren’t in this neck of the woods to appreciate the Idolatrous Cult that quickly formed ’round Police Chief Moose.

  3. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    That would be Portland Chief Moose, well within my understanding-the-cult parameters….

  4. Jim Bovard July 19, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Was he in Portland before or after Montgomery County? It is amazing how someone like that could get hired for a serious job anywhere.

  5. Tom Blanton July 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    I used to watch a show on TV when I was a kid called Captain Kangaroo every morning. One of my favorite characters on that show was Mister Moose.

    Speaking of morning TV, the day after the snipers shot some guy just north of Richmond, all the local Richmond TV stations featured live coverage all morning of some Mexican guys in a white van surrounded by cops at a service station. It seems these guys stopped to make a phone call and before they could leave, the cops surrounded them. There were even helicopters and police snipers on the roofs of nearby businesses.

    I recall that one or more of the guys in the van was deported as an undocumented immigrant. Imagine what he was thinking as he sat in the van with all these gringo guns aimed at him all morning. He probably wished he had a green card.

    It was a pretty good TV show, but I would just have soon watched Captain Kangaroo and Mister Moose.

  6. Jim Bovard July 19, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

    Surprising the cops didn’t simply carpet bomb that entire zip code to make sure they got the rascals.

    I am mystified why folks would preserve faith in law enforcement with boundless power. There are some savvy cops but the more power their institutions garner, the more that folks like Moose rise to the top…

    Or Freeh, even worse.

  7. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    Jim – 1993 in Portland, he was earlier. It’s where he honed those high quality policing skills….

  8. Jim July 20, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    Was it Portland he sued for racial discrimination prior to coming to the DC area? SEems like I heard he had one bogus lawsuit to his record prior to bollixing the sniper case.