Unabomber – a very mixed bag

Unabomber: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted KaczynskiUnabomber: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski by Jim Freeman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoy real-crime books, especially those involving the FBI, and I enjoyed this one, but it’s not for everyone. It’s full of many nuggets of fascinating facts buried in a mountain of pedestrian writing. Since I do offer some criticisms, let me first say that the authors and the whole Unabomber Task Force members mentioned here presided over the identification, capture and successful prosecution of the Unabomber, a serial killer. You or I might have been his next victim had they not succeeded. Results matter and they got the results, so they deserve credit for that. Bravo. But this is a book review, not a performance review.

First, the good. The book gives a very realistic view of the FBI, exposing many errors, foibles, egos, and so forth without sugar-coating. It provides many details of the case that I had never read about before, like the fact that for 16 years, no one who worked the case bothered to check to see if one of the first bombs, one found lying on the ground with plenty of postage, would fit in the nearest mailbox. All kinds of theories were formed about why the bomber chose to plant it there instead of mailing it. How is it possible no one thought that this might be due to the fact it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox? The federal jurisdiction was so fractured that the various agencies (ATF, FBI, Postal Inspectors) were not even aware that three of the bombs were made by the same bomber for years because they didn’t compare notes or case files. One of the bomb labs thought one bomb was intended to be a dud. Later, the other two agency labs disproved that. And so on. If you’re a fan of this kind of crime detail, as I am, this book is worth wading through.

The high point of the book is not how the case was finally solved. It was solved not by the FBI but by the Unabomber himself the same way most criminals are caught. He kept committing crimes until he made a mistake and exposed himself. In this case, he wrote a “manifesto” and sent it to some newspapers, and when it was published someone who knew him, a relative, turned him in. This sort of crowdsourcing is as old as the hills. Before TV and the Internet it was done with wanted posters. But basically, he outed himself by his arrogance, insane compulsive hatred, and his need to promote his “philosophy.”

That’s not to take away from all the hard work done by the task force, both before and after he was identified. Just because various methods didn’t work doesn’t mean they weren’t worth trying or that anyone was deficient. Many clever approaches were tried but did not pan out. That’s no doubt reality in law enforcement.

Where the book shines is in how it highlights what’s wrong with the FBI and other federal law enforcement. We see in this book the comedy of errors that early investigators made, gleefully pointed out by the main author of this book. Disturbing as it is to see him put down others not under his command, he may be doing the public a service. He takes pride in showing how superior his crew was, at least in his mind. The problem with that theory is that he and his crew came no closer to identifying the Unabomber than his predecessors. It took the Unabomber’s brother, an Ivy League graduate, to do that. Maybe the FBI should be recruiting there, or at MIT and Caltech, instead of in the usual haunts. Maybe they should be looking at SAT scores rather than the ability to wrestle felons to the ground. It’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for Pete’s sake, not the Federal Bureau of Patrol. If the FBI had put a couple agents with IQ’s equal to those of the Unabomber and his brother on the case early on, perhaps the fatalities (which came later) might never have happened. We’ll never know.  The FBI still thinks of itself as a police agency instead of an investigation agency. It should be the varsity, but Freeman makes them look like bouncers with college degrees. In the British system, Scotland Yard Inspectors, brainiacs (theoretically at least) who don’t carry guns, do the investigating and call in the brawny constables when an arrest needs to be made. Something like that could be done with the FBI, but of course that will never happen. The pay and early pension of the FBI, higher than regular civil servants and even higher than other federal investigative agencies, is keyed to the “danger” and “stress” and need to carry weapons, so they have to be given police work to justify that. Freeman and his crew do deserve kudos for the excellent planning and execution of the arrest at least.

As for the writing, my description as pedestrian is charitable. The book is replete with grammar, punctuation, and wrong word errors. (Ordinance for ordnance, poured for pored, rationale for rational, feint for faint, etc.) The authors should have splurged and hired an editor, or at least a proofreader. The primary author (the SAC) seems never to have learned the objective case, or maybe just doesn’t recognize a preposition or transitive verb when he sees one. (“joined Terry and I”, “paused to urge both he and Joel” etc.) This mistake permeated the whole book, with only one instance of correct pronoun usage (at 62% of the way through according to my Kindle) when there were multiple objects. Maybe he missed 7th grade. 90% of the book consists of descriptions of meetings and how he wrested or kept control from other bureaucrats. It sounded like he viewed other agency heads and FBI executives as the main enemy rather than the Unabomber. His self-congratulatory tone is also hard to stomach since the SAC’s main contribution, beyond appointing some competent worker bees, seems to be buying donuts and occasionally interrupting his golf game to listen to what the bees actually accomplished.

Perhaps most troubling is the pervasive cowardice described during the end game by FBI executives, prosecutors, and DOJ officials. No one was willing to make a decision about whether to release the manifesto, or whether to arrest or search Kaczynski because if it turned out wrong, it would hurt their career. If you care about your career, you shouldn’t be in the FB I or DOJ. You should be caring about protecting the public from killers. How about just doing what is most likely to result in the capture of the killer? This concept seemed easy enough for the journeyman agents to understand – Puckett, Moss, and Noel, assuming the book has it right. They seem to be the ones who finally got the impetus going to do what’s right. This top-level cowardice aspect left me with a despairing feeling about the future of he FBI, but this stark reality depicted here is probably what is most important in this book. Let’s hope Director Comey reads it.

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