Twenty-four years ago today, an anonymous 911 call was received by an emergency operator in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics. “There is a bomb in Centennial Park,” said the man on the other end of the line. “You have 30 minutes.” It turned out that the terrorist was lying, but only about the time: There was an explosive device in the park, but it detonated 22 minutes after the call.
His 40-pound pipe bomb, packed with screws and nails, killed Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old wife and mother who operated an ice cream parlor named after her 14-year-old daughter Fallon. They were in Atlanta because Fallon wanted to hear a music group performing there, and Alice bought her tickets as a birthday present.
Melih Uzunyol, 40, a Turkish cameraman, was in the city to cover the 1996 Olympics. Rushing to the site of the bombing, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Scores of people were wounded. The toll could have been far worse, save for an observant and quick-acting security guard who noticed a suspicious backpack in the park and guided people to safety just before it exploded. His name was Richard Allensworth Jewell, and he was instantly hailed as a hero.
Three days later, however, a story in the Atlanta Constitution turned Jewell's world upside down. Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, the newspaper identified Jewell as “the focus” of the criminal investigation. This set off a frenzy of news coverage in which Jewell was portrayed as an overweight loser and law enforcement wannabe with a sick desire to draw attention to himself. This was untrue and monstrously unjust, as I’ll document below. Before I do, a personal note: Attentive readers might notice that I’ve written about this case previously. But because law enforcement agencies in general, and the FBI in particular, keep making the kinds of mistakes in this case, I’m writing about it again. I’ll keep doing so until I retire, or until the bureau reforms itself, whichever comes first.
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The only evidence against Richard Jewell -- if one can even call it evidence -- consisted of his being in the vicinity of the crime and an FBI psychological profile projecting the killer as a loner.
Jewell wasn’t a loner. He was an introvert, yes, and he had been unlucky in love. But he was a person who respected the law, and was empathetic and eager to please. Mostly, he wanted to serve his fellow human beings.
As writer Marie Brenner would note in a haunting 1997 Vanity Fair profile, the profound irony of Jewell’s nightmarish experience with the FBI was “a reverence for authority that blinded him to the paradox of his situation.” By that she meant that Richard Jewell had a particular (if utterly unfounded) reverence for the bureau and harbored a romanticized view of its investigative abilities. He could scarcely comprehend that he’d become ensnared in the maw of an overly hierarchal agency led by men whose true talent was bureaucratic infighting.
Eric Robert Rudolph, the actual bomber, was captured in 2003. He admitted his crimes, which included other fatal bombings. This domestic terrorist pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Richard Jewell received apologies and several large sums to settle libel claims, although not one from the Atlanta Constitution, which fought the case in court until Jewell died at age 44 of health problems, almost certainly exacerbated by the stress he endured.
After he was exonerated, field agents and senior bureau supervisors alike told investigators from the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility that FBI Director Louis B. Freeh oversaw the bombing case personally. Vanity Fair posed a profound question, one that haunts law enforcement officials -- or should haunt them -- to this day: Doesn’t the leader of FBI, and those who head other government investigative agencies, have a duty to protect the privacy of innocent Americans?
Freeh apparently didn’t think so, which suggested it would happen again. And it did. Five years later, the whole sorry spectacle repeated itself in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Once again, the investigation was micro-managed by the FBI director, a job that is held by a political appointee, though the men in that position sometimes act as if it has lifetime tenure. Once more, the bureau obsessed on an obviously innocent man. The media -- stop me if you’ve heard this one before -- amplified the bureau's bungling instead of questioning it. Again, restitution was eventually paid out to the fall guy, in this case former Army bioterrorism expert Steven Hatfill. And, yes, the man who led the bureau was again uncontrite.
When the real killer in the anthrax attacks committed suicide as he was about to be apprehended for his crimes -- and after the government paid Hatfill $5.82 million in a legal settlement -- the FBI director could not be bothered to walk across the street to attend the press conference announcing the case’s resolution. When reporters succeeded in cornering him, the director was unrepentant.
“I do not apologize for any aspect of the investigation,” he said, adding that it would be erroneous “to say there were mistakes.” That FBI director was Robert Mueller.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.