Terror Chowder: Stir in Boston

In court Thursday, prosecutors calmly outlined why two young marketers were charged under a terror statute when they only intended to promote a cable TV cartoon, not "flip the bird" at the city.

"The broad intent was to draw attention to a new movie that was coming out.  Guerrilla marketing, it is called," Assistant Attorney General John Grossman told the court.

"While that may have been the broad intent, it's clear that placing a bomblike device at that location would be to create fear, unrest, that there was a bomb located at that location," he continued.


The courtroom calm was a far cry from the response to the ad campaign by Boston residents -- fear, concern, traffic tie-ups -- and the officials of Boston -- outrage, anger and an intent to prosecute.

Two questions were not asked in court yesterday but were the talk of many media observers, including our own.

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Where but Boston could one make a national chowder of guerrilla ads, police responses, the use of the word "hoax" and the immediacy of cable TV?

And when but now could the world of Internet bloggers offer the early advice that the "suspicious" devices were part of a Cartoon Network ad campaign, even as the network's sister media outlet CNN was declaiming the fear that the apparent bomb hoax was causing in Boston?

Here is how events unfolded:

A first "device" was spotted at a subway by a passerby during the morning rush.

Transit police "disarmed" it, and then local and national news media reported it.

In the words of Assistant Attorney General Grossman, "What happened was a passerby notified an MBTA inspector that they noticed a device...The MBTA inspector noticed the wires and the duct tape-wrapped package and did the right thing and notified MBTA police."

Those cops decided the device looked like a bomb, and rather than take chances, they "disarmed" it with a controlled blast.

"This device looked like a bomb...there was a circuit board, running to a possible explosive material, wrapped to duct tape, with the appearance of C4 or something wrapped in duct tape. The power source could have been one battery and explosive, or even a watch battery. It had the appearance of an explosive with a wire coming out of it. It was very possibly a bomb," Grossman said.

But soon after, according to City of Boston police, bomb technicians knew they were dealing with a "prank," meaning a stunt of some kind, and not a "hoax," which to cops means a device intentionally made to look like a bomb.

Still the media and then the governor of Massachusetts said it was "a hoax," and before one could say "Osama bin Laden," fear was in the air in the commonwealth.

By 1:00 p.m., when callers alerted officials to four more "devices" on bridges, at a busy intersection and near a hospital, Boston officials were in high gear. State police bomb techs, FBI counterterrorism experts and political officials all were grappling with what they had. The judge and prosecutor calmly discussed this on Thursday:

"The device in question is a box, 18-by-18 inches, several inches thick. On the top portion, made from a LiteBrite toy, is a light that emits light. There is a cartoon-like figure making an obscene gesture facing outward. Colloquially, he is flipping the bird, your honor," Grossman said.

"That's what the finger is?" Judge Paul K. Leary asked.

"Exactly," Grossman answered.

Does that sound like the work of bomb hoaxers?  Members of the federal law enforcement community by mid-afternoon Wednesday had reached the conclusion that it didn't and issued a bulletin stating the devices were possibly the work of "pranksters" or a publicity stunt to promote a movie.

This was roughly the time when Turner Broadcasting decided to fess up, and early enough for officials perhaps to be a bit more careful with their words in a late afternoon press conference, where anger was the mood, and "pranksters" were not on the agenda.

All in all, it was a frustrating day, law enforcement officials concede.

Police and firefighters forced to respond as if the devices were real -- they get no choice in these matters -- wound up tying up traffic and feeding the media hype when television broadcast images of the cops and firefighters at work.

Turner Broadcasting, for its part, did not come clean publicly until late in the day, which raised skeptical eyebrows given the commercial interests at stake.

By that point, police were well on their way to charging two young marketers: the men who appeared today in court, where it was noted by the prosecution that the two "pranksters" were not the instigators of the campaign.

"We're not unaware of the fact that the defendants are not at the top of the hierarchy here," Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General John Grossman told the court.

Arrested were Sean Stevens, 28, and Peter Berdovsky, 27, and charged with placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct.  They were both released on a $2,500 bond each.

Before their arrests, the men spent Wednesday evening helping police locate the rest of the devices.

And, in a worlds-collide sequence, while one America was chasing potential bombs, the world of bloggers was already explaining the campaign to the Internet savvy.

As to why other cities did not react, or overreact like Boston, well, it appears most did not know the devices were in their cities until after Turner fessed up, and federal officials from Boston circulated a list of locations through intelligence channels.

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