Word Gets Around, Anonymously
ON April 3 at 3 p.m., Eastern time, CBS broke the story that the FBI was preparing to execute a search warrant on the home of the Unabomber suspect. To complaints that this report may have forced the hand of the FBI, CBS responded that it had been holding the story for two days, that it acted on hearing that ABC and CNN were about to go with it, and then only after advising the FBI it could wait no longer. Clearly there had been a considerable amount of advance briefing of the media, confirmed by the detailed stories about Theodore Kaczynski and his past that appeared within hours of his arrest.
Briefing by leaking has become a routine practice. Attorney General Janet Reno says, "I cannot comment on a pending matter." But, from various anonymous "federal investigators" and "law enforcement officials" word seeps out about matching typewriters, an assembled bomb, and other key pieces of evidence. The remark of Tony Bisceglie, the Kaczynski family lawyer - "I have never seen so many anonymous federal officials in my life" - reflects the family's dismay at the disclosure that the suspect's brother was the one who implicated him.
One can understand that the FBI, trying to redeem its reputation after Waco and Ruby Ridge, would be extra helpful to the news media on its promising Unabomber investigation. One can also understand the value of cooperation between press and law enforcement authorities. It was the willingness of The Washington Post and The New York Times to heed the FBI's advice last September and publish the Unabomber's manifesto that led to the suspect's identification by his brother.
BUT information-leaks from anonymous sources raise the danger of manipulation and misinformation. Witness the denial by Mr. Bisceglie that, as some law enforcement official had been quoted saying, David Kaczynski, as a condition for implicating his brother, has asked for assurances that the death penalty would not be sought. And leaks on an investigation in progress always provide the defense with ammunition for arguing prejudicial publicity.
But, for law enforcement agencies on the defensive, the temptation to manage the news is very great. And news organizations, in fierce competition with one another, are willing handmaidens.