Three years before the Boston Marathon bombings in April, the city’s police department complained to federal authorities about flaws in a key intelligence-sharing system, which appears to have overwhelmed local investigators with a torrent of information they were unable to effectively sift through or act upon, according to a U.S. law-enforcement report obtained by International Business Times.
The concerns raised by Boston police in a 2010 federal analysis of the collection and interagency sharing of information about suspicious individuals and activities point directly to possible weaknesses in the city’s ability to thwart potential terror attacks both then and now.
Moreover, the existence of this document years before the April 15 terror attack leads to questions about why nothing appears to have been done to ameliorate Boston’s concerns during the intervening period, and why the Boston police seem to have done little to improve what the city clearly identified as a gap in its anti-terrorist program.
The data-sharing shortcomings outlined in the federal document also prompt questions about whether any federal surveillance dragnets -- including the National Security Agency programs that have recently been so controversial -- can be effective in preventing terrorist attacks on American soil.
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Slipping Through The Cracks
Four days after the Boston attack, the FBI disclosed it had interviewed bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 to investigate his possible ties to extremist groups after they received a tip from Russian authorities that he may have been a radicalized Islamic militant, as the Daily Mail noted. The agency reported it did not find any incriminating information and determined he was not a threat.
But Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis maintains that no one in his department -- including his small team of detectives and supervisors assigned to the Boston division of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force -- was informed about the FBI’s inquiry into Tamerlan Tsarnaev or the Russian suspicions about him until well after the bombings took place.
“We have access to all the databases, but we were not in fact informed of that particular development,” the police commissioner told a congressional committee in May, according to a CNN transcript. He added that his officers on the task force “tell me they received no word about that individual prior to the bombing,” the Associated Press reported.
An 18-page intelligence report drafted five days before the marathon by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC -- a U.S. Department of Homeland Security-backed hub that facilitates information sharing between various federal and local agencies -- revealed that the FBI had identified the race’s finish line as an “area of increased vulnerability” that was at risk of being targeted by “small-scale bombings,” the Los Angeles Times said. That report was also either overlooked or never received by Boston police, a fact that points to further information-sharing failures between agencies in the Boston area.
The federal law-enforcement report obtained by IBTimes offers a prelude to these missed opportunities and failures by the Boston Police Department to fully implement information-sharing systems, shedding new light on the intelligence missteps that preceded the Boston Marathon bombings.
The report, drafted by the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, or NSI -- a collaborative effort led by the Justice Department in partnership with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and state and local law-enforcement agencies -- provides a comprehensive analysis of collaborative efforts to collect data on suspicious activity reports, or SARs, particularly activity with “a potential nexus to terrorism.”
The document examines a crucial tool in America’s nationwide information-sharing system that warehouses SARs, and allows federal and local law-enforcement agencies to search the database for information to assist their investigations. But it also exposes gaps in these same intelligence-reporting systems, and includes a lengthy discussion of such shortfalls within various local law-enforcement agencies.
Overwhelming Barrage Of Information
A section of the report dedicated to the Boston Police Department gives a unique look at how anti-terrorism efforts were being developed, honed and implemented by local authorities in collaboration with federal law-enforcement agencies four years before the Boston Marathon bombings.
The most revealing part of the report’s Boston study is a section called “Project Recommendations From the Boston Police Department.” The section lays out seven suggestions Boston police offered for improving the reporting and sharing system -- called ISE-SAR Shared Spaces -- based on their experiences with it between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009, which was the duration of the information-sharing initiative (dubbed the ISE-SAR Evaluation Environment, or ISE-SAR EE) studied in the report.
One of these recommendations sticks out: It suggests that the Boston Police Department, or BPD, was concerned that too many reports of varying worth were being filed, thereby overwhelming officers’ efforts to effectively use the system.
“An appropriate threshold should be clearly defined for entering a SAR into the ISE-SAR Shared Spaces,” the recommendation states. “During the ISE-SAR EE, there seemed to be a disparate amount of SARs being entered between the agencies. BPD wants to avoid the entry of information into the ISE-SAR Shared Spaces that is not of value and avoid large volumes of information being ‘dumped’ into the system.”
That recommendation did not come as a surprise to Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy and its Economic Warfare Institute, who told IBTimes that federal law-enforcement agencies have not provided their local counterparts with enough guidance to properly use the anti-terrorism system.
“This shows how [federal law-enforcement agencies] have not done their job, because it’s all just being thrown in and they don’t know what to look for,” she said. “It is not necessarily that the Boston Police didn’t do their job properly ... Clearly, the government didn’t do a good enough job of providing a definition of what is a terrorism-related suspicious activity.”
The Boston Police Department also recommended that a so-called daily digest of SARs be created and distributed to agencies “to save the time and effort it takes to conduct multiple searches.”
But New York Police Department Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, whose members are NYPD officers, agreed to discuss the system and its implementation. Mullins told IBTimes that it is important to ensure that only high-level reports are submitted because flooding local law-enforcement agencies with too much information can have negative consequences.
“By putting in stuff that doesn’t rise to the level, basically what you’re doing is watering down the system itself,” Mullins said. “I think you need to maintain the credibility of the information that goes in, not overload it with every little tidbit of information that occurs that doesn’t have value.”
Interestingly, the Boston Police Department was the only one of 12 local law-enforcement agencies involved in the study to complain about these types of issues in its recommendations. In contrast, the Seattle Police Department actually recommended that the system be expanded to include all crime reports.
Failure Of Coordination
Another suggestion made by the Boston Police Department that appeared in the report recommended that a federal-level solution be implemented to ensure that various law-enforcement agencies work together smoothly.
“There is a need for some form of governing body, such as a national program office, to monitor the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI) and take the lead in the coordination efforts between agencies at all levels of government,” the recommendation states.
The report also contains a lengthy analysis of Boston law-enforcement agencies’ information-sharing efforts that includes criticisms that build on the BPD’s assertion that there is a need to improve cooperation between agencies.
“Although BRIC works closely with the Massachusetts Commonwealth Fusion Center ... the two are not directly connected; therefore, information sharing is not automated,” the report states. The Massachusetts Commonwealth Fusion Center is a Homeland Security operation that facilitates interagency information sharing in the Boston region.
These statements add context and weight to an assertion by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that an information-sharing failure may have contributed to the FBI’s intelligence going unheeded by local authorities before the Boston Marathon.
“Information sharing between agencies is critical. And we created the Department of Homeland Security to supervise that. We created the National Counter Terrorism Center to be the collection point for all of this information, and we’re going to get to the bottom of whether or not somebody along the way dropped the ball on some information and did not share it in a way that it should have been shared,” Chambliss said a week after the Boston bombings, according to WBSTV.com. Chambliss’ office did not respond to requests for further comment.
The NYPD’s Mullins spoke about the need for efficient, well-coordinated information sharing, saying that interagency communication has yet to be perfected.
“Combining systems where you’re not working off different computer systems -- going into one system where everything’s there -- would make it much more efficient,” Mullins said. “In the NYPD, we have to call different places to get information; each precinct has different information. You don’t get the readily availableness at your fingertips that you would get at the federal level.”
The document goes on to explain that the Boston Police Department had not fully adopted the standard coding system for filing SARs, thereby creating another possible information-sharing issue.
“During the ISE-SAR EE, BPD did not adopt the behavior-specific codes detailed in the ISESAR Functional Standard but reviewed its own codes and can classify its activities based on the Functional Standard,” the report states.
Broad Surveillance Apparatus
The information in the document is particularly relevant now as it points to how difficult it is to share information obtained via a wide range of sources, including the federal government’s surveillance complex, aspects of which were exposed again to public scrutiny last week following a series of high-profile leaks.
As revelations about the NSA’s data-collection practices continue to emerge, a picture of a law-enforcement regime that feels it must have access to many details of our digital lives has come into focus.
As evidenced by the Guardian’s reporting on domestic surveillance ranging from a vast clearinghouse of data on millions of phone calls made over the past seven years to the Prism initiative that has reportedly allowed the NSA to access servers of nine Internet giants -- including Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB), Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) and the Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) -- since at least June 2010, the U.S. government is keen on catching any hint of terrorism-related activity.
Yet, these NSA disclosures come less than two months after the Boston Marathon attack, which proved that at least in some very significant cases all the databases in the world will not guarantee safety.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., admitted last week the recently revealed electronic-surveillance apparatus “isn’t anything that is brand-new,” according to CBS News. Which only makes this question all the more relevant: What needs to be done to make sure that police departments, like Boston’s, can successfully use available databases and other resources to identify individuals such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as dangerous potential terrorists before they kill and maim in broad daylight?