September 28th, 2006

Forbidden Lore

Keith Olbermann's Forbidden Lore

Keith Olbermann did a big story last night about ... Keith Olbermann.

Here's the deal. On Tuesday the 26th, Keith was the target of what turned out to be a hoax terror attack: some person or persons unknown mailed him fake anthrax spores. He says that when he got them, he decided to err on the side of caution in case this time it was real, and in case the cops needed to know in time to warn other journalists not to open their mail. So he calmly dialed 911, and the cops and the FBI took over. They put him through full decontam twice, once on scene and again at the hospital they took him to. While waiting for the lab results, to again err on the side of safety, the FBI instructed the hospital to dump his clothes (including wallet and car keys) in the medical incinerator. The preliminary tests came back ... as what he had previously suspected, laundry detergent. However, on the off chance that there had been anthrax spores that were missed they sent him home with medical orders to start taking Cipro. The FBI and the NYPD also asked him to keep his mouth shut about this ... which is the point I'll come back to.

Apparently somebody at the hospital or somebody at the NYPD talked to a gossip columnist, because the New York Post ran a (largely inaccurate) version of the story in their "page 6" gossip columns on Wednesday: Paula Froelich with Bill Hoffman, "Page Six: Powder Puff Spooks Keith" (New York Post, September 27th, 2006). Keith was a little cranky about that on the air Wednesday night, and not just because they mischaracterized him as a coward and a crybaby. No, the other reason he's cranky about this is that he was told by the NYPD and the FBI that it would be easier for them to catch and prosecute the person or persons who mailed this hoax terrorist attack if the perpetrator didn't know yet that the letter had arrived, had been opened, and was being looked into by law enforcement. They instructed him to treat this as Forbidden Lore, as a Secret Man Was Not Meant to Know, and he was (at least in this case, and as he documented, in other cases involving attacks on journalists where secrecy might protect journalists' lives) inclined to obey.

Were they right? Was he right to believe them this time?

First, let's examine the question of whether or not what the cops asked for was even possible. The Mafia, which had the power to kill its own members with impunity for even the most minor offenses, were the ones who coined the famous saying, "Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." The cops were hoping that the perpetrator wouldn't receive any word that he was under investigation. Was a secret that big keepable? It turned out not to be this time, and that's what Keith's complaining about. But has it ever? From the Black Dahlia to Jon-Benet Ramsey, from Sharon Tate to the BTK killings, the cops have always tried to keep some or even most of the details of a major crime scene secret, for reasons I'll come back to in a minute. But human beings spread gossip, especially juicy gossip, at something rather remarkably close to speech speed. They have never yet been successful in keeping those secrets.

Second, let's look at the reason they want to keep these secrets. It is standard doctrine that keeping crime scene details secret serves two purposes. For one thing, it helps you rule out false confessions; if the cops know more about the crime scene than the person confessing does, especially if the person who's confessing gets the details wrong, then obviously they've got the wrong guy. That same standard doctrine also teaches that if somebody knows details of the crime scene that only the killer and the cops would know, that's an important clue, enough to elevate that person to the status of a suspect. I say that it's standard doctrine, though, even though recent studies have shown that it's not true, and one by one cops and prosecutors are abandoning it. Those same leaks and gossip that I already mentioned are so ubiquitous as to render these tools too blunt, to useless, to get any good out of. No, what the schools and the police academies are starting to teach now is that it's only evidence if the person being questioned knows things about the crime that even the cops didn't know, such as if they lead them to evidence that the cops hadn't found yet.

Finally, let's look at what trying to keep those secrets costs the public. The cops make a lot of noise about their forensic abilities, but full forensic workups cost a fortune and the backlog at every crime lab is, figuratively speaking, out the door and around the block. The cops go out and question everybody they can think of just so that it looks like they're investigating the crime, to keep the taxpayers off of their backs, but that beating the bushes almost never turns up any useful leads. The cops make extensive use of informants, but informants have a bad history in this country of making stuff up if they don't have the answer, so the cops will keep coming back and so the cops will keep protecting them as important sources. So how, then, do the vast majority of crimes get solved? Criminals gossip, too. Somebody hears something on the news, puts it together with gossip they heard or something they noticed, realizes that something doesn't seem quite right, and calls the cops. So when cops at any level try to keep crime scene details secret, because of outdated and misguided theories of criminal investigation, they're cutting themselves off from the help of the people most likely to solve the crime -- the people who know or live near the criminal and who don't know enough to realize why what they know, heard, or saw is suspicious.