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Archive for Saturday, November 2, 2002

FBI director has praise for police, but says tips on phones mishandled

November 2, 2002

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— Despite the arrest of two suspects in the sniper case, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Friday that it was clear improvement was needed in how police handle a deluge of telephone tips in major cases.

Mueller, meeting with journalists at FBI headquarters, also reported progress in the anthrax investigation including scientific work to replicate how the anthrax was made and repeated that the al-Qaida terrorist network remains a dangerous foe even if it has been disrupted and dispersed.

The cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement officials during the three-week sniper siege of the Washington area was "truly remarkable," the type of cross-jurisdictional work law enforcement agencies must do to detect and catch terrorists, Mueller said.

"This is the way we're going to have to work in the future if we're going to be successful," he said.

There still were some problems, starting with the way telephone tips were handled. The snipers apparently called both the FBI tip line and local authorities on several occasions, identifying themselves as the killers, yet not every call was taken seriously or acted upon immediately, officials have said.

Mueller said a review was under way to find ways to train people better for handling calls, whether they should all be automatically recorded and how to log them and assess priorities. Still, he said, the tip line generated more than 107,000 leads and ultimately led investigators to the two suspects.

"I think you always wish you could have solved it earlier. I think we did a remarkable job with what we had," Mueller said.

John Allen Muhammad, 41, and 17-year-old John Lee Malvo are in federal custody awaiting a decision on where they will be tried for the Washington-area sniper shootings as well as murders in Alabama and Louisiana. They were arrested Oct. 24 after authorities traced them from a fingerprint found at a crime scene in Montgomery, Ala. Callers to the tip line and to a priest in Ashland, Va., had pointed investigators to Montgomery.

U.S. counterterror officials worry that terrorists might take a cue from the snipers in planning future attacks. The officials say they have read praise for the attacks on known Islamic extremist sites, where contributors noted how cheaply the snipers were able to terrorize an entire region.

Asked if the nation is vulnerable to similar sniper attacks, Mueller said, "The answer to that question is yes."

The source of deadly anthrax-laced letters remains a mystery more than a year after they were mailed to government leaders and media offices. Mueller said, however, that the investigation was not lagging, and much of the focus now was on time-consuming scientific work into how the anthrax was manufactured and who could have done it.

"We're going into new territory in some areas," Mueller said.

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