BOSTON -- Moments after investigators went before cameras to broadcast photos of two men in ball caps wanted for the Boston Marathon bombing, queries from viewers began pouring in -- 300,000 hits a minute, which overwhelmed the FBI's website.
It marked a key turning point in a search that, for all the intensity of its first 72 hours, had failed to locate the suspects. Experts say it instantly turned up already intense pressure on the two men to flee or almost certainly be recognized -- increasing the chances they'd make mistakes that would lead to their exposure.
The decision to ask the public for help also was something of a gamble, one investigators had to weigh carefully.
"It was a good decision to put this out to the public... and this would have been a calculated risk. But the intent would have been to get these guys to change their pattern," said Martin Reardon, who spent 21 years as an FBI agent and is now a vice-president of security consultant the Soufan Group.
Releasing the photos greatly increased the odds the two men would be recognized and turned in, even as it significantly upped the chances they would try to vanish or commit more mayhem.
After three days without being able to identify a suspect by name, investigators clearly made the decision to release the photos Thursday on the belief that, without doing so, the suspects might remain at large for weeks or months, with the chance to flee or to act again, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.
So with photos in hand, investigators made a choice deemed both necessary and prudent.
"And then the worst possible thing happens," Weinstein said. "They do actually begin their flight and then start to wreak vengeance on the whole city of Boston."
Weinstein, Reardon and other experts had differing opinions on whether investigators' decision to release the photos was worth the cost exacted by the two men: the killing of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer, a carjacking, the shooting of another transit police officer and a block-by-block manhunt that led officials to shut Boston and many of its surrounding suburbs.
But all agreed the photo release was pivotal in breaking open the case, because it instantly deprived suspected bombers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, of time, anonymity and options.
By late Friday, many of the details in the chain of events that led to the older brother's death and a massive hunt for the younger one were still unclear, but the pursuit had consumed the region with apprehension. The chaos of the pursuit contrasted sharply with the sweeping, methodical investigation that began almost immediately after the Monday-afternoon bombing that killed three and wounded more than 180, marked by officials' notable reluctance to disclose information.
By Thursday afternoon, the brothers had to know their options were narrowing quickly. Then the FBI released their photos to millions of viewers across the city, and around the world via newspaper, television stations and websites. The time to move was now.
"I think this developed rather quickly last night," State Police Col. Timothy Alben said late Friday. "I would wager that most of the activity that was printed in the media yesterday forced them to make decisions or take actions that ultimately revealed who they were."
-- The Associated Press