The decision to release images of the men later identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came partly because investigators wanted to “limit the damage” being done by amateur Internet sleuths and the news media in fingering the wrong people as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
The Washington Post reported that after Monday’s attacks, investigators filled a Boston warehouse with hundreds of pieces of bloody clothing, shoes and other evidence from the scene on one side, and sat poring over hours and hours of video on the other. After several days, analysts focused on the black-hatted and white-hatted suspects, known for a time as Suspect No. 1 and Suspect No. 2.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) told the Post that the reaction of Suspect No. 2 — identified as 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now hospitalized after his capture Friday night – to the first explosion provided “highly incriminating” evidence and is “a lot more than the public knows.”
Investigators settled on the image of Suspect No. 2 on Wednesday, but the massive effort to identify the bombers was still raging on Internet sites including Reddit.com and on the front page of the New York Post, the Washington Post reported:
[On one Reddit forum], since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.
“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”
The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”
In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social media complicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.
According to the Post, once Suspect No. 1 and No. 2 were identified, there were other considerations in the decision to release their images to the public. Investigators didn’t want to risk having news outlets actually discover them first, thereby possibly creating doubt that the Tsarnaev brothers had been wrongly identified, like others before them. Additionally, they were concerned that if they didn’t have control over the release of the photos, the manhunt would spiral out of control with the news media and “online vigilante detectives” competing with police to find the suspects
President Barack Obama was shown images of the brothers Thursday afternoon during a briefing. He was not asked to approve their release, but did caution officials to be certain they had the right suspects before putting their pictures out.
It’s possible, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the Post, that releasing images of the brothers might have triggered their violent rampage Thursday night. Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier was slain in a confrontation with the suspects, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed after a shootout with police.
“We may have forced their hands by releasing the videos,” Davis told the newspaper. But he believes it was the right call: “I truly believe they were planning more attacks, based on the evidence we saw at Watertown. I think that by forcing their hand, we saved a much larger loss of life. . . . These individuals were bent on murder and mayhem.”
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