On April 22, CIO Journal deputy editor Steve Rosenbush published a column on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. His column looked at the way a number of disparate elements quickly came together to address the very complex problem at hand: identify and find those responsible for the bombing as quickly as possible.
I’ve worked closely with Steve since last April when CIO Journal started posting my blogs. We discussed the Boston investigation as he was writing his column and he quoted some of my comments. Since then, I’ve continued to think about what might be some of the key lessons we have learned so far about the investigation and the way it was conducted. Let me share a few of my personal first impressions.
I was impressed by the professionalism exhibited by these various first responders in such a complex, chaotic situation. These people and their agencies were very well prepared. They clearly did not know that this particularly bombing would take place, but their professional reactions showed that they had anticipated and planned for a variety of such emergency situations, had plans in place for handling them, and had likely practiced these plans in various ways.
Their well executed response was no accident. They were ready. The hallmark of professionalism, whether in sports teams, business or first responders is that they are ready to handle just about any situation that comes their way. And this can only happen with a team of well prepared, talented individuals. Practice does indeed make perfect.
Governance and Teamwork: This professionalism extended beyond the initial response to the bombing investigation. Multiple federal, state and local law enforcement agencies worked closely together to identify and apprehend the suspects. “Everyone was in agreement that there had been an attack, that the victims needed to be helped, and the perpetrators brought to justice,.” wrote Rosenbush in his CIO Journal column. “While those goals might seem obvious, there are plenty of places in the world - pick the failed state of your choice - where that consensus isn’t possible and terror attacks aren’t so efficiently addressed.”
Whether in government or business, it is often quite difficult to get everyone pulling in the same direction to solve a very complex problem, even in a crisis situation where time is of the essence. Doing so requires effective governance and the close cooperations of all those involved. This should be simpler in business, since in principle everyone is part of the same organization that eventually reports to the CEO. But, as we have seen over and over again, many companies have dysfunctional organizations that are not able to come together and address complex problems even when their very survival is at stake.
Such good governance and cooperation is much harder to find in government where organizational structures are typically more distributed and it is often not clear who is ultimately in charge. Which makes the law enforcement collaboration exhibited in the Boston bombing investigation all the more impressive. Given that the bombing was treated as a terrorist attack, the FBI led the investigation, assisted by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and a number of other federal agencies. The Boston police department worked closely with those of Cambridge, Watertown and other nearby communities. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and the state police were decisive in making decisions to shut down Boston and nearby municipalities, including public transportation, as they searched for the suspects. We assume that all these decisions were made in close consultations with the various law enforcement agencies involved.
I was particularly impressed with the press conference that took place on April 19 at 9:30 pm following the arrest of bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown. Given how fast events had been unfolding that evening, the 22 minute press conference, which took place about one hour after the arrest, must have been hastily pulled together. Yet, it was a well orchestrated, positive event celebrating not only the end of the manhunt after a long, tense day, but the close teamwork that led to the successful resolution of this phase of the case.
Ten different speakers, representing the different agencies involved, took the podium and thanked everyone for their hard work and cooperation: governor Patrick and Boston mayor Thomas Menino, the special agents in charge of the investigation for the FBI and the ATF, the US Attorney and Suffolk County (Boston area) District Attorney, the police chiefs of Boston and Watertown, and the chiefs of the state and the transit police. This press conference spoke legions to me about the professionalism and teamwork underlying the investigation.
Social Media and News Outlets: The response to the Boston bombing by emergency responders and law enforcement is evidence that, over the last dozen years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US has made much progress in its ability to handle catastrophic events. However, finding the proper role for social media in such events is still a work in progress.
Social media played an important role in disseminating information about the bombing as soon as it happened. And, once the FBI identified and released pictures and videos of the two suspects on April 18 and made a direct appeal to the public for assistance in finding them, social media was very helpful in distributing the pictures and video as well as the FBI’s appeal for help.
However, much more problematic were the actions of some in social media, who took it upon themselves to try to solve the case on their own by analyzing photos online of people carrying backpacks who they felt might be potential terrorists. They started spreading rumors, which turned out to be baseless. This rush to judgement was not only unfair to those improperly identified, but ended up disrupting the official investigation, which had to quickly dispel the false rumors and clear people being unjustly accused before any damage was done.
“The craving for information leads to behaviors that are alternately rewarded and punished,” wrote author and journalist James Gleick in New York Magazine. “If instantaneity is what we want, television cannot compete with cyberspace. Nor does the hive mind wait for officialdom. While the FBI watched and tagged and coded thousands of images from surveillance cameras and cell phones, users on Reddit and 4chan went to work, too, marking up photos with yellow arrows and red circles: “1: ALONE 2: BROWN 3: Black backpack 4: Not watching.”
“Virtually everything these sleuths discovered was wrong. Their best customer was the New York Post, which fronted a giant photo of two “Bag Men” - who, of course, turned out to be a high-school kid and his friend, guilty of nothing but brown skin. If the watchword Wednesday was crowd-source, by Thursday it was witchhunt. Total Noise.”
Social media and crowdsourcing can clearly play major roles in helping the authorities in such investigations. But, the key phrase here is helping the authorities, rather than going out on its own. Much as we may sometimes feel that the wisdom of crowds trumps expertise and process, what works so well for Wikipedia does not carry over to endeavors like terrorist and criminal investigations.
Old media had its own missteps. The worst one by far was The New York Post’s April 18 front page photo under the headline “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The two men pictured were completely innocent with no connection whatsoever to the bombings. Other news outlets were also taken to task for reporting what turned out to be false rumors, causing the FBI at one point to criticize the news media for their mistaken, unverified reporting.
Over the next several months, new facts will emerge and in-depth books will be written that might cast the Boston Marathon bombing investigation in a different light. But, at this early stage, I believe that the key lesson we have learned is the reaffirmation that we can take a punch and keep going. We need to be as vigilant as humanly possible, but terrorist and criminal acts will continue to strike us from time to time. In all such cases, the knowledge that we are a resilient society that can pick itself up and keep going while remaining free and open is the most important lesson of all.