The FBI released images of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on Thursday in order to “limit the damage” done by amateur internet investigators on sites like Reddit and news media like the Post, which fingered the wrong individuals.
Before the suspects were identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Reddit forum, now removed, was compiling thousands of photographs as users postulated their own theories.
“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator, The Washington Post reported. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”
The moderator praised this method claiming “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better … I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”
The message board 4Chan also had users weighing in on surveillance photos and claiming to know the real suspects.
The front page of The Post Thursday identified two other men they claimed were being hunted as suspects. The newspaper was also criticized for making an error when it reported the number of those dead from the bombings as much higher.
The release of photos and videos of the real suspects was meant to protect those wrongfully accused on the Internet and by the news media. Security footage taken near the marathon finish line showed the brothers.
"Releasing that video really expedited things. People actually did recognize them," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "That moved things along more quickly, to the point they decided they had to get out of town."
Officials debated releasing photos because the suspects could flee, but they also worried of the possible staging of another attack.
Investigators knew they should release the images before the media got their hands on them, otherwise they would risk the Tsarnaev’s becoming objects of sympathy as wrongfully accused suspects. Facial recognition software did not identify the Tsarnaev’s, although both suspects had images in official databases.
President Obama also cautioned about the release, telling the FBI to be sure they were the right men.
When the pictures were made public Thursday, the FBI was flooded with phone calls. Federal law enforcement officials said a call was received from an aunt who provided them with her nephew’s identity.
The release of the photos also spurred the brothers into action. They attempted to leave town. If reports of a U.S. terrorist sleeper cell are true the boys did not appear to have any prior plan to leave Boston after the attacks.