For years a simple message has been posted, in one form or another, all over public transport in Boston: “See Something. Say Something … Instincts tell you to do something? Do something. Call this number …” One sees much the same slogan in New York, in Washington, or for that matter in Paris and London. Public vigilance is an important part of preventing terrorist attacks. And if bystanders on Boylston Street in Boston near the marathon finish line on Monday had seen a couple of stray backpacks, or someone dumping too-large packages into garbage cans, and said “something,” maybe—just maybe—three people would be alive today and more than a hundred could have been saved from injury.
But the first, most important line of defense against terrorist attack is not the public, and it’s not even the cops. It’s not metal detectors or high-tech aerial surveillance. And it’s certainly not the threat of after-the-fact jail time for the bombers in this age of suicidal terrorism.
The best and most important defense is detailed, real-time intelligence about the fanatics and lunatics who may intend to carry out such attacks, and the means that they may use to slaughter innocents. Thus, the critical failure to protect the crowd at the marathon was summed up by Boston Police Commissioner Edward P. Davis in a single phrase: “There was no specific intelligence,” he said, that would suggest such an attack was imminent.
When the police have information, plots can be disrupted, attacks prevented, and, at a minimum, public vigilance can be heightened. Without it, life goes on as normal, until it doesn’t.
Normally, it’s up to the federal government to come up with that sort of intelligence. The Boston Police force is only about 2,000 officers and some 800 civilians. So in the global war waged by terrorists, it has to depend on coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the rest of the intelligence community through one of the many “joint terrorism task forces,” established under FBI tutelage around the country.
In the aftermath of the marathon bombing the key question is not whether the feds missed something. Clearly they did. The questions that have to be answered are when and where and why they missed the “something” that could have kept the Boylston sidewalk from running red with blood.
Was there “chatter” among veteran terrorists or their wannabe imitators that could have pointed to the impending carnage in Boston? The NSA sucks up the second-by-second torrents of national and global communications flowing through the world’s fiber-optic networks, then filters out what it doesn’t want. Was it filtering for the wrong people?
“Intelligence agencies monitor those whom they suspect,” says Marc Sageman, a veteran of CIA operations in Afghanistan and a psychiatrist who is expert on the way terrorists think and organize. “These suspects are often part of radical communities that have surfaced on their radar. If someone is totally new and not connected or newly connected to these communities, they would fly under the radar of these agencies.”
“We’re going to go back over all the traffic, and maybe we will find something we missed,” says a source briefed extensively over the years by virtually all U.S. intelligence and security agencies.
Was the lack of “specific intelligence” the result of miscommunication, or non-communication, among agencies that gather human intelligence? Was it a failure to connect the dots, as we saw when the failings before 9/11 were pulled apart?
Complacency about the terrorist threat has been a growing problem for counterterror operations, not least because the public has begun to see as encroachments on its liberties measures that it deemed perfectly acceptable in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize a year ago for its exposé of NYPD surveillance activities among Muslims in New York City and elsewhere. Such criticism has led, inevitably, to more caution and ass-covering in Washington.
Earlier this month, a veteran intelligence officer complained to me that “terrorism is being treated as somewhat more than a nuisance.” As an example, he noted that the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, when an al Qaeda acolyte in the U.S. Army slaughtered 13 people, have been classified by some law-enforcement agencies as “workplace violence” instead of terrorism. “Every time there is an arrest, you hardly hear about it,” he said.
A truly terrifying thought: did the feds see something and not say something?
Until that question is answered, none of us will be safe.