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How Media Coverage Crimped The Times Square Case

Members of the media photograph the mailbox at a home where Faisal Shahzad lived, in Bridgeport, Conn., Tuesday, May 4, 2010.
Jessica Hill
Members of the media photograph the mailbox at a home where Faisal Shahzad lived, in Bridgeport, Conn., Tuesday, May 4, 2010.

The virtually wall-to-wall coverage of the Times Square bombing investigation was a problem for investigators trying to solve the case.

It all began at dinnertime last Saturday night, when a suspect drove an SUV rigged with a homemade bomb into Times Square, set the car in park, turned on the detonator and left -- hoping for destruction.

A little more than two days later, law enforcement arrested a man believed to be responsible: Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistani American. He allegedly has admitted to the crime. But what hasn’t been apparent until now is how news coverage of this story fundamentally changed the investigation.


Law enforcement officials usually say they can't talk to reporters about an ongoing investigation, but there were leaks in this case from the beginning -- partly because of the dynamic between two powerful law enforcement forces in New York City.

While the NYPD and the FBI talk publicly about how seamlessly they work together, the truth is there's a lot of professional rivalry. Get detectives or agents out for a beer and one of their favorite pastimes is griping about something the NYPD did or something the FBI missed. Because of that, there tend to be a lot of leaks.

Details about the Times Square investigation were all over the local newspapers, even as authorities were still trying to puzzle out who was responsible. Any element of surprise that law enforcement might have had was evaporating.

To be fair, law enforcement was partly to blame. In many cases, it was the source of the information and leaks. But there seemed to be an extra level of frustration about the leaks in this case. As one law enforcement official told NPR, "Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that's not good."

Our operational plans were being driven by the media, instead of the other way around. And that's not good.

He said they watched in horror as news organizations started talking about the fact that the vehicle identification number on the Nissan Pathfinder used in the botched bombing had been taken off the windshield. Then another report said that wouldn't matter, as authorities could find the VIN on other parts of the car. A short time later, the fact that they had found the number was reported. The coverage was providing a lot of clues about the direction the case was going.


On Monday afternoon, basically a day-and-a-half after the attack, a news organization reported that law enforcement officials were looking for an American citizen of Pakistani descent from Shelton, Conn. (NPR also had the information but didn't report it out of concern that it would affect the investigation before Shahzad's arrest.)

Shahzad mentioned that news report after he was in police custody, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the case. He told the arresting officers that the moment he read it was the moment he knew it was only a matter of time before authorities would close in on him. He also assumed from the report that he was under surveillance.

That's an important detail, because surveillance is only effective if people don't know they are being watched. "It was like watching an episode of 24 in real time," a law enforcement official said. The only problem was that Shahzad was able to watch it, too.

Then it got worse: Reporters started showing up at Shahzad's house in Shelton, waiting for the arrest to happen. Shahzad was actually up the road at a ramshackle apartment he had rented in Bridgeport. That's where officers were watching him -- but apparently that also was leaked. A TV reporter showed up there and waited.

For the arresting officers, there was another wrinkle. They knew from running Shahzad's name through databases that he had purchased a gun in March. If the suspect was following the media reports, he knew the noose was tightening and might try to shoot his way out. They had to fundamentally change how they were going to approach the house to prepare for that possibility.

But Shahzad surprised them by leaving the apartment. He went to a local supermarket and they lost track of him. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told NPR on Wednesday that they lost him for about three hours. When they finally caught up with Shahzad just before midnight Monday on a plane bound for Dubai, he smiled at the officers and said, "I've been expecting you. Are you NYPD or FBI?"

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