In their quest to find whoever is responsible for three Atlanta bombings during the past year, federal investigators are turning again to a valuable source: the public.
It's a tactic that has worked in other cases - notably in the Unabomber case, which yielded an arrest after the FBI urged newspapers to publish the bomber's "manifesto."
Now, investigators are revealing key pieces of information in the Atlanta bombings, hoping for a similar break in the cases. They said June 9 that two of the attacks - at an abortion clinic in January and at a lesbian nightclub in February - are almost certainly linked. A blast at Centennial Olympic Park last July may also be part of the bombing spree, they said.
Observers welcome the outreach as a positive development. "Going to the public works and can be quite productive," says Jerome Storch, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Most of the information investigators released centered on the partial contents of a letter, hand-copied four times and sent to media outlets days after the Feb. 21 nightclub bombing. The letter claims responsibility for the blasts at the abortion clinic and the nightclub.
Those who track militia and hate groups say documents that turn up after politically motivated crimes can be valuable tools for finding the guilty. Kenneth Stern, a hate-crimes expert at the American Jewish Committee in New York, points out some recent examples: A group called the Phineas Priesthood bombed a newspaper office and a Planned Parenthood facility in Spokane, Wash. Symbols left at the scene led investigators to the members. Moreover, investigators were able to thwart a plot to bomb a West Virginia FBI facility, using threatening letters received beforehand.
But some who are following the cases are concerned about the investigation's direction.
"I'm surprised at this," says Mary Mauney, research director at the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, a group that studies hate crimes and militia movements. "I had doubted that the person who wrote the letter actually did the bombing, because the letter came so late. "The three bombings appeared to be separate because only one letter was sent, after the final bombing, she says.
The FBI agreed that the bombs at the latter two attacks varied from the bomb at the Olympics, but agents nonetheless believe the attacks are related. "In the bombings, there are similarities and dissimilarities," says FBI inspector Jack Daulton. "But we are all but positive that the last two bombings were linked and have a strong suspicion that those two were linked to the Centennial Park bombing."
Investigators say they now have forensic evidence linking the two most recent bombings with the attack at the Olympics, but they did not make that evidence public.
DURING the FBI's two-decade search for the unpredictable Unabomber, some investigators urged the agency to go public with photographs, letters, and bombing details sooner. But top officials resisted, concerned that revealing facts could tip their hand to the bomber. Ironically, going to the public is what finally broke the case.
Investigators here may have taken note, releasing two sketches of possible suspects as well as parts of the letter. Bringing the public into the probe may help to mute criticism of the bureau's early handling of the Olympic bombing.
But the FBI's Mr. Daulton cautions against seeing the appeal to the public as a desperate move. "We just had new information to bring to the public."