FBI Should Embrace Reddit & 4chan, Drop The Combative Stance

The FBI has long operated as a closed-off clique of shadowy agents and firewalls, serving the nation's intelligence and sleuthing needs while keeping the citizenry at arm's length.

This approach has had its benefits, as it has allowed the bureau to conduct covert investigations that have ended many plots before they could have ever been carried out and have brought closure to families affected by heinous crimes.

And the bureau has once again taken the lead in the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, claiming federal jurisdiction over the search for the bomber or bombers while hiding behind its usual curtain of secrecy.

But the Boston Marathon probe is not your average case, and 2013 represents the dawning of a new age of technology-assisted amateur sleuthing, as evidenced by the extensive, organized effort that users of the Reddit and 4chan online communities have put into their collective attempts to find out who is behind the attacks.

Reddit and 4chan users undertook a parallel investigation as the FBI refused, for two full days, to release anything in the way of real information about its suspects in the case.

A Reddit user set up the FindBostonBombers subreddit -- a subsection of the site wholly dedicated to the search -- where curious folks posted news reports, tips and countless photos they had combed through in hopes of finding someone who fit the description that slowly emerged via vague official briefings and unreliable leaks to the press.

They and the users of the 4chan community who had taken up the cause had very little to go on when they embarked on this mission, first knowing only to look for a man who was rumored to be dark-skinned and wearing a black jacket with a black backpack, then following a CNN report that the FBI was focusing on a suspect in a black jacket, a grey hooded sweatshirt and a backwards white baseball cap.

It was one of the first times these communities had taken up such a heavy task, but they didn't have acess to a psychological profile, forensic evidence, interviews with witnesses or any of the other evidence the FBI was keeping under lock and key.

Still, through the synergy of crowd-sourcing they gathered the best possible information and used it to find people in photographs and video taken before and after the bombs went off who seemed to match the FBI's loose description. It turned out, in the end, that they had not identified a single photo of either of the men, and critics immediately called their efforts amateurish, a diversion and even dangerous.

Then something funny happened. On Thursday night the FBI finally released photos and surveillance video footage of two bombing suspects. Within hours, Reddit had turned its investigative talents toward searching for any glimpse of the two suspects in the trove of photographs and video taken at the Marathon on Monday.

Lo and behold, they quickly came up with at least four photos of a man who is one of the suspects, one of which even appears to show 8-year-old bombing victim Martin Richard and a black backpack at the feet of marathon attendees. All the pictures are clearer than the grainy ones the FBI released. Reddit had proven the online "armchair detective" community's worth, and shamed the FBI in the process.

The bureau has seemed firmly rooted in the past over the three days that have passed since two explosions ripped through the Massachusetts breeze, killing three and injuring dozens more.

Rather than sharing information while becoming aware that it needed the public's help to find the suspects, the FBI stalled and refused to release new evidence until becoming desperate for a break in the case.

Rather than viewing Reddit and 4chan as potential allies in the search for the terrorists, the FBI -- and the Boston Police Department -- indirectly derided them, saying in terse statements and press conferences that people should ignore any evidence not coming from official sources and consider it erroneous.

The evidence dredged up online between Monday evening and Thursday afternoon was in fact just that: a massive waste of resources and man-hours that could have, instead, been dedicated to working on the best intelligence the FBI had -- information that likely had little potential to jeopardize its investigation.

And almost as soon as the FBI released its protected clues, Reddit made multiple strides forward in the probe. Reddit is advancing the case, while the FBI is declining to answer questions except at orchestrated events where the bureau can plead for the public's help. The citizens are helping, but the FBI is averse to the channels with which they are doing so.

The Boston Marathon bombing is not a controversial event divided in any significant way by political, religious or ideological differences. It is an assault on every American's sense of safety, and it brings all of us together in our collective desire to bring whoever committed this terrible crime to justice. It's time the FBI let us all help do just that.

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