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Profiler: Sniper case publicity a balancing act

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt
Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt

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(CNN) -- One of the lead investigators in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings lashed out at the media Wednesday.

Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose was upset that information about a Tarot card left near the scene of the most recent shooting -- and inscribed with the message, "Dear Policeman: I am God" -- had been leaked to the media.

Moose also criticized retired law enforcement personnel who serve as news analysts for TV networks and stations on the case. He said it was insulting to hear commentary from people who have not been briefed, seen evidence or talked to investigators in the case.

One of those analysts, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt, talked with CNN's Paula Zahn shortly after Moose made his remarks.

ZAHN: Why is Chief Moose so mad at you guys?

VAN ZANDT: Well, I don't know who he's mad at specifically. You know, Paula, I've been on both sides of this issue. As an FBI agent for 25 years working cases, you want to just take all the facts and information and you want to pull it up to yourself. You want to hold your cards to your chest, so to speak, and don't let anyone else see that.

I mean as an FBI agent, you never wanted to talk to the media. You didn't want the media involved because you wanted to be in control. That's what we do in an investigation. We're in control of it.

But the reality is in this day and time, you can't hold all of that back. Now, there is certain information the police should get, should hold back, should keep special so that only they and, in this case, the shooter know it.

But the public is sitting out there -- you, me, other people who live in the Washington, D.C., area -- saying we need some frame of reference. And I think what the talking heads like myself are trying to do is simply to give a generic frame of reference to help people understand because the police, rightfully so, are reticent in sharing information about the case.

Now, I would be upset, as the chief is, if I had this specific piece of information, this card that they would have loved to have held close, because now the potential exists for copycats, for other things like that to take place.

But the question, Paula, is where did that information come from? You know, perhaps one has to conclude it came from someone in the law enforcement establishment who shared that initially with the media. Or they let the media get too close.

ZAHN: Well, that sure is a nice way of putting it, Clint. Sure is a very nice way of putting it. You're talking about a leak here, and that's why the chief is so angry.

VAN ZANDT: Well, yes. And, again, that anger, you know, this is a man, I mean this man is a saint. We've seen a tear coming down his face when a child is shot. So this man is an absolute saint. He's probably working 22 hours a day. The pressure in one of these cases, Paula, is absolutely phenomenal.

And, again, I fully appreciate that the police position is, "We have nothing to say to no one." But the reality is that it doesn't work that way. I found it out since I've left the FBI. I realize what that balance is and what the talking heads, what your experts have to be very careful of, is that we speak in generics.

That's like when we've been talking on your program, we've been very careful not to say well, this is a white male between 18 and 25 who's 6-foot-tall who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, hypothetically.

You know, whether the FBI develops that specific profile or not, the last thing I would want to do, and I think anybody else would want to do, is say, "Wink, wink, nod, nod, let me tell you the secret profile that the bureau has." And therefore you, the public, can self-eliminate anyone else who doesn't fit that profile.

And the people that I've seen, the profilers, the psychologists, the former law enforcement officers, have spoken in generics about cases they have worked in the past. We've spoken in statistical probabilities.

And I think the media -- and I've been forced, kicking and screaming, to understand this from my time in the FBI -- serves a purpose because the public has this insatiable desire to know, sometimes just because we like to inquire, we like to know what's going on.

But the other part is we want to protect ourselves. We want to know, should we be out shopping, should we be buying coffee, should I go to the grocery store?

ZAHN: Before you go any further, his [Chief Moose's] message was loud and clear. He's essentially saying you guys are interfering with the investigation.


ZAHN: And he's saying if you're putting -- and I'm not saying you directly because he never said your name -- but if folks like you who are on TV talking about this are putting lives at risk, then shame on you.

VAN ZANDT: Oh, and I believe that, too. If they're putting lives at risk.

Now, the challenge is, of course, not giving away specific information, not suggesting who future targets could be and not challenging -- I mean we've heard the, we've heard the governor of Maryland get up on TV and say this guy is a coward. Well, that's kind of a challenge that's being issued by that level of government.

So the responsibility, I think, flows uphill and downhill in this case.

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