News & Politics

Standoff Ends as Discovery Hostage-Taker Is Shot By Police

Crisis reflects Washington's unique experience of terrorism, expert says

An extreme environmentalist who had been arrested during protests in the past was shot dead by law enforcement at the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring today after taking three hostages and planting what are suspected to be explosives in the network's building, paralyzing traffic and riveting the region for much of the work day.

Montgomery County police chief Thomas Manger said in a press conference shortly after James Jay Lee was shot and the hostages were recovered safely that "he had a wide range of emotions" during several hours of negotiations. Law enforcement officers made the decision to shoot Lee because they believed the hostages' lives were in danger. Lee had what appeared to be explosives attached to his body that detonated when he was shot, and Manger said that there appeared to be explosive devices in backpacks planted elsewhere in the building that were being neutralized separately.

Lee entered the Discovery Communications headquarters shortly before 1:00 PM, when some of the company's 1900 were out to lunch or returning from breaks. The building, including a day care center on the first floor, was gradually evacuated, though a source described the situation inside the building as "chaotic" as the evacuation proceeded, and Discovery employees reported banding together to find secure offices and to try to find more information about events as they unfolded. 

Relatively early in the unfolding crisis, news outlets, included WUSA 9, identified a quasi-environmental manifesto calling for a decline in human population, and for a reorienting of the Discovery Channel's programming to support that message, signed by a "Lee." And early speculations that the manifesto's author was the same James Jay Lee who was arrested in 2008 for throwing money to attract a crowd to a protest of the Discovery Channel in Silver Spring proved to be correct. Lee was sentenced to six months of supervised probation, fined $500, and threatened with jail if he came within 60 feet of the company's headquarters.

Fred Burton, vice president for intelligence at the global intelligence firm Stratfor, said that the region's response was conditioned by events like the September 11 and Beltway Sniper attacks.

"If you moved to Biloxi Miss, and this individual walks into an office building, probably your initial responders are going to think workplace violence, hostage taking, not terrorism," he said. "You put this in the Discovery building or any building in midtown Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, you're thinking terrorism."

He said that September 11 had conditioned law enforcement agencies to look for the possibility of multiple attacks and political affiliations that might signal more coordinated actions in multiple cities. And Burton said that events like Lee's attack, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC in 2009, or an unsolved major arson at the Texas governor's mansion in 2008 that caused $26 million worth of damage were a reminder that Islamic extremism is far from the only motivator for terroristic attacks in the United States.

The showdown at the Discovery Channel also brought out some tensions in Washington's developing media world. Twitter became one of the dominant conduits for early information about the hostage crisis, though the social networking service was slow to update a trends list to reflect interest in the ongoing standoff and negotiations. And the Washington Post, which published a negative review of competing local news website, relied on a TBD-provided video feed of the situation, obscuring a TBD logo and prompting a protest from TBD in the process.

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