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The Blame Game

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This much is certain: passions run hot about the D.C.-area sniper attacks one year ago. People were fearful, and looking for someone to blame. Who better than the seemingly-bungling publicity-hungry chief of police who led the entire nation on a wild goose chase for a white man in a white van — explicitly disavowing any link between the killings and Islamic terrorism — when the real killers were Moslem and driving a Caprice? When the killers were caught not because of the best efforts of the police, but despite them, or so many seem to believe.

Much of the criticism is true. Chief Charles Moose sat on information that, when leaked, had the killers caught within hours. Then again, the feds themselves bungled a few things, too. Chief Moose did bend over backward to avoid any suggestions that Islamic extremists might be responsible, seemingly in defiance of reason and, it turns out, reality. But did he do so based on standard FBI suspect profiling?

It’s been a year, and former-chief Charles Moose has co-written a book describing not just those Three Weeks In October, but his whole life before that event. In fact, the book gives the investigation short shrift, focusing instead on what a critic of Mr. Moose might term a very long excuse for his poor handling of the case. I prefer to see it charitably as a man cashing in on the only chance he’ll likely get to tell his life story to the world, which is one more chance than most of us get. In fact, it is a pretty good story about his life, though given how much apparent dissembling he does in the part of the book devoted to the sniper case, one does start to wonder about the veracity of the rest of it. In any case, it’s an interesting read, but don’t pick up the book expecting to learn much new about the sniper case.

For that, you might turn instead to Sniper, written by two reporters from the Washington Post. Much more focused on the case itself, with some background on the suspects, this story paints the picture most people close to the investigation say is more accurate. It isn’t as richly detailed as some nonfiction treatments of crime drama, but it does follow the basic flow of the investigation fairly well. And it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Chief Moose.

The books are at odds, no question about it. Moose claims that frequent outbursts of temper and certain public statements that now seem to reflect incompetence were all actually part of a master plan to mislead the snipers. The Post authors reject that notion, clearly believing that they reflected truly poor decisions by Chief Moose. I’m generally inclined to believe the story told in Sniper more than Moose’s version of events, but there is no question that he did in fact do many things right, and others made plenty of mistakes as well.

Easterbrook at The New Republic takes a look at both books, and suggests that each of them leave some things out. The Moose book obviously defends Moose, while the Post book seems to take the sides of the feds. As I mentioned earlier, they were probably not without some fault themselves.

You can read snippets of the Sniper book for yourself:

  1. Truck Took Probe Down Wrong Road
  2. Struggling for a Direct Connection
  3. Frustrations — and Finally a Breakthrough
  4. In the End, Caprice Lost Its Invisibility
  5. Jurisdictions Vied To Prosecute Pair

There is also a third book on the subject, 23 Days Of Terror, about which I know no more than what the Booklist review on Amazon says.

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About pwinn

  • I congratulate you on reading the book before commenting on it, something too many people are not doing.

    However, I must take exception to the two most misleading claims repeated here:

    1) That the task force pursued white men in a white van exclusively, and

    2) That the suspects are Islamic extremists.

    Neither has any support in the evidence. The suspects interviewed during the investigation were of all races and drove various vehicles. Muhammad and Malvo are nominally Muslim at most. In fact, there is no evidence that Malvo has ever been to a mosque. Muhammad’s participation in the non-mainstream Nation of Islam was sporadic and he didn’t practice even basic Muslim religious observances, such as prayers. The suspects’ motives for their participation in this spree are much more personal than religion, I believe.

    Because of the coincidence of living where Charles Moose experienced most of his career, I have a broader view of his performance. No reasonable person with that information would consider Moose incompetent. Six years as chief of police in a sizeable city and leaving under one’s own steam is quite an accomplishment. I would encourage anyone who wants to know who Moose is, warts and all, to read my review here at BC or at Mac-a-ro-nies.

  • Indeed, MD, it is clear from reading both books that the white man, white van image was note the sole pursuit of the department. I didn’t make that clear in my review, which as I read it now seems to give that impression. Nevertheless, that was the image given to media, for whatever reason, and the media is probably responsible for having spread it so widely. I’m sure I’m not the only one that remembers the police release a sketch of the white van done by a police sketch artists, which surely would have been one of the most amusing moments of any investigation anywhere if the events were not so tragic.

    I actually used the term Islamic extremists advisedly, but it occurs to me now that most readers will not be familiar with the terms as I use them. I don’t consider the suspects to be real Moslems any more than McVeigh was a real Christian. I regret using the term without explaining that.

    Considering the ugliness surrounding the firing of former Dallas police chief Bolton here where I live, I definitely think that Moose’ career record should rebut charges of complete incompetence. However, it seems clear to this reader that successfully managing a large city is still different level of task from managing a manhunt of this scale. I believe that the best thing Moose did was call in the feds early, and the worst thing he did was try to keep a bit too much of the investigation under his control.

    Hubris, I guess, but perhaps understandable given his past success.

  • JR

    Suggesting to the public that the suspects were Islamic extremists would have been a mistake. As Mac Diva said, they were only nominally Muslem. But more importantly, given the times, any suggestion of Islamic ties would have likely have led to a great deal of suspicion cast on Muslim communities, which was exactly where these guys weren’t to be found. I don’t know whether the suggestion would have inevitably led to attacks on innocent Musims, but it certainly wouldn’t have apprehended the snipers any quicker.

    We can argue about whether Chief Moose was “reasonable” (though I haven’t read the book), but I would say he made the right decision.

  • To state that suggestions of that sort would have been a mistake is to suggest that criminal investigations should be political, and I reject that notion entirely. Facts are facts, and the more we strive to obscure those things in the name of not offending someone, the worse off we all are.

    Besides, I believe that the chief complaint isn’t that Moose assiduously avoided any mention of the possibility of dark skin or a religious angle or excuse for the actions, but that he specifically and mistakenly singled out white men, and some people believe that was politically (racially) motivated. After reading his book, I’m of mixed minds about it. I think it might simply have been a mistake.

    Better, if he wasn’t sure, would have been to say that the suspect was of unknown ehtnicity.

  • JR

    I’m just saying it would have been a mistake to single out MUSLIMS because it would not have helped, and might even have hindered, the investigation; just as singling out white males was a mistake. I’m not defending the reasons Chief Moose refused to identify the suspects as Muslim; as I said, we can argue about whether he was reasonable.

    I agree with your last sentence (aside from the typo).

  • On that, JR, we agree. The sticking point was that he reportedly refused to even consider the notion, which seems weird given the environment last year.

    And, er, yes, that was a typo. I do know how to spell ethnicity. 😉