By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Casting some doubt on the official marathon accounts

Boston Marathon bombing memorial at the Boston Common Gazebo

For the police — and for the public — last Friday was a day of fear, rage and confusion. So it takes nothing away from the work done by law-enforcement officials to point out that things didn’t go down exactly the way they were described in real time.

Three big stories today underscore that confusion. The most significant is in the Washington Post, which reports that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was probably unarmed when police fired on the boat in Watertown where he was hiding. They quote an anonymous official as saying that an officer may have accidentally fired his gun, setting off a fusillade.

Such a “fog of war” situation, as the Post describes it, is totally understandable. And yet, if authorities lost a chance to bring in a high-value terrorism suspect alive for questioning, it would have been a serious loss.

In the Boston Globe, a team of reporters quotes law enforcement as saying that it is now believed Tsarnaev’s neck wound came from flying shrapnel rather than a self-inflicted bullet wound, which fits in with the emerging theory that he was unarmed.

And from the New York Times we learn that the boat was actually inside the search perimeter, contradicting earlier reports. Again, not to second-guess the police, but it makes you wonder what sort of search they conducted during all those hours on Friday.

Journalists should approach the official account with skepticism, not cynicism. We need to know exactly what happened last week — including, of course, whether the Boston Marathon bombings can be attributed to a breakdown in intelligence-sharing among the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, which is the main focus of the Globe article.

Photo (cc) by AnubisAbyuss and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. You are the essence of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Good job thanks.

  2. Dan: Not seeing any issues here about him being unarmed.

    Guy had been in a gun battle and had thrown explosives. He was apparently knowledgeable enough to use them.

    I think a reasonable and prudent man would assume he was armed.

    As a journalist, I understand the second-guessing. You cannot know how long he was in the boat or where he was before that.

    I do agree, there was a clear breakdown in communication at the higher levels.

  3. Steve Zeoli

    I think an interesting aspect of the Friday manhunt is that the lockdown of Watertown may have hindered, not helped, the search. All day they had this intensive, door-to-door search for the young Tsarnaev, but it wasn’t until they lifted the ban on going outside that the homeowner discovered the blood on his boat and called in officials. Could all that fuss have been avoided if people weren’t restricted to their homes? Definitely second-guessing on my part and not intended as criticism, just an interesting “can we learn something from this?” observation.

  4. “Journalists should approach the official account with skepticism, not cynicism. We need to know exactly what happened last week …”. Really? Of course! The tragi-drama-sci-fi-narrative of the “Boston Marathon Bombing” isn’t near complete nor will it be for years. Thus far I’d give ALL journalists a D+ for their performance (not a grade to their abilities yet to be seen) and all law enforcement a B+. Boston is just now coming up off the asphalt. Law enforcement performed extraordinarily under extraordinary asymmetrical logistical demands. ‘Journalists’, significantly diminished already as anything resembline the ‘fourth estate’ (sic), leveraged their audio/text Cliff Notes of Tweeterville to respond to the narrative while on their backs for a time, then from behind the yellow stripe of a police line. The journalist’s legacy-currency, i.e. garnering the ‘scoop’, or blaring the 80pt two word headline (if it bleeds, it leads), rattling the cage… and selling the rattle, diminishes the craftsmanship of the trade and is no-longer necessary. Why… the advertising-monetization model is in a fractured state; social media archives observations of millions — certainly of thousands around Boston on Patriots Day — some real, some photo-shopped, some totally fictitious. The photo-journalist of the moment was our SmartPhone observer from his third floor bed overlooking the Tsarnaevs’ last gun-battle early Friday morning in Watertown. A for factual-realness and content-symmetry; B- for ‘digital’ quality. But ALL our hands would be shaking at that particular moment.

  5. Bob Brosseau

    My understanding was that police saw movement and something poking through the shrink wrap on the boat. If I was there as a member of law enforcement I’d probably assume that anything coming from that boat was a threat and I’m not waiting long to respond.

  6. Larz Neilson

    How long was he in the boat? If it was inside the search perimeter, is it possible that it had been searched earlier, and he subsequently hid there?

  7. I was surprised that (in the Boston area particularly) that there was not an easily available robot available that could have quickly been on site to put a video camera into that boat, along with possibly delivering a knock-out gas or restraining device.

    • Good point… we are the ‘Athens of America’… and home to iRobot… (enter commercial, stage left…).

  8. Mike Benedict

    [Knock, knock] Seen any terrorists in your house? No? OK, thanks!

  9. Jerry Ackerman

    Real life almost never follows the script.

  10. Jerry Ackerman

    Duke, there apparently was a robot (at least that’s what I think I saw in what was presented as a State Police video clip). And it apparently was used, but (apparently) not until after the gunfire. (All those qualifiers are necessary, because, as I said, real life almost never….).

  11. jim duffy

    Very happy to read this…..all thru this ordeal, the “actual” happening vs the police account has many holes in it. I question whether he was armed……..I don’t believe he was because there are only so many bullets. When you hear that 250 rounds were shot in Watertown fire fight, I’d be willing to bet the bombers accounted for only 30-40. They simply did not have time to re-load that quickly with all the law enforcement fire power.
    As far as the “fog of war”, listen to the 50 minute audio of the law enforcement radio transmissions on It clearly shows the lack of communication amongst the agencies. BTW – this is my first time on this site. I really like it.

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