When hundreds of armor-clad police officers, firefighters, medics, and SWAT teams descended near downtown Boston last fall, Mayor Thomas Menino urged residents to stay calm: It was only a drill.
The 24-hour training exercise featured Hollywood-style special effects, and it simulated hostage situations, HazMat incidents, and mass shootings. Boston officials used grant money from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to pay for the Urban Shield drill.
Five months later, the drill turned real: Many of the same officers in November’s exercise responded to the twin bombings on April 15 that killed three victims and injured more than 240 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three days later, some of the same teams swarmed nearby Watertown in a massive gunfight and manhunt that ended with the death of one terrorist and the capture of another.
Authorities say the pair killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier before their spree ended. The two Chechen brothers had lived in the United States for at least 10 years.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died during a gun battle with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, surrendered less than 24 hours later. The wounded suspect reportedly told authorities he and his brother were Islamic jihadists striking back at the United States for killing Muslims overseas.
Last year’s training drill in Boston likely proved useful to officers responding to the attacks, but it’s not the only kind of project funded by DHS. In a report last December, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blasted one of the agency’s primary grant programs as unaccountable and wasteful. In Fort Worth, Texas, authorities used a DHS grant to buy a $24,000 latrine-on-wheels. Officials in Michigan used DHS money to buy 13 sno-cone machines. (The justification: They could serve sno-cones at community outreach events, and fill ice packs during emergencies.)
And last October, DHS helped pay for a different training exercise in California: The HALO Counter-Terrorism Summit at Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an island near San Diego. DHS allowed first responders to use grant money to pay the $1,000 entrance fee to a five-day summit on a luxury island that event organizers described as “a perfect backdrop” for a counter-terrorism summit.
While first responders did participate in training exercises on the island, organizers described other advantages: “This luxury resort features over 460 guestrooms, five pools, three fantastic restaurants overlooking the bay, a world-class spa and state-of-the art fitness center. Paradise awaits … .”
First responders know best that fighting terrorism isn’t paradise. But the wide range of projects DHS funds by the billions is one part of a tangled reality: The massive effort to protect the country from terrorism sits squarely in a bureaucratic jungle.
Federal and local authorities have foiled dozens of terrorist plots on U.S. soil since 9/11, and Boston residents praised local police who rushed toward danger as bombs exploded on April 15. When authorities nabbed Tsarnaev from his hiding place in a boat called Slip Away II, residents in Watertown erupted with joy and snapped photos with Boston police.
But revelations that the FBI and CIA had put the older Tsarnaev brother on a pair of watch lists before the attacks raised legitimate questions: Are agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DHS communicating adequately about potential threats?
Meanwhile, some of the counter-terrorism efforts that work best face obstacles: For example, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) continues to foil terrorist plots before they strike the city. But the police force faces backlash and lawsuits from local organizations, including Muslim groups that object to police monitoring Muslim communities.
Indeed, the jungle is thick and the issues are complicated, but in the wake of the first successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, at least one question is crucial: Are we willing to pursue some of the most obvious steps to protecting the homeland?
The United States has pursued colossal protection mode since the 9/11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania more than 11 years ago.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates intelligence data across a broad network of agencies, including the FBI, DHS, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Department of State.
Within those networks, thousands of employees and organizations operate under a range of authority structures. In a 2010 series, The Washington Post reported staggering numbers: Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counter-terrorism and homeland security in 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. Analysts publish some 50,000 intelligence reports each year.
The impulse to mount a massive response to a massive attack may be understandable, but even some government officials confess astonishment.
After reviewing the method for tracking Defense Department programs, retired Army Lt. Gen. John Vines told the Post: “I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities.” Vines—who helped command 145,000 troops in Iraq—added: “The complexity of this system defies description.”
If understanding the structure of counter-terrorism is daunting, so is grasping how the top agencies communicate. The 9/11 Commission Report faulted the FBI and CIA for failing to share key intelligence ahead of the 9/11 attacks. The FBI announced reforms to improve intelligence sharing, but some experts say some agents still resist sharing classified information they fear could hamper investigations. Tensions still flair between agencies.
Even when agencies share information, the levels of classification are complex. For example, a 2010 government report said when it comes to information considered “Sensitive But Unclassified,” federal agencies maintained 130 different procedures for processing and handling such intelligence.
Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office urged DHS to develop a more centralized platform for agencies to share information. An updated report last year said DHS had made progress, but still needed to improve the process.
More than a week after the Boston bombings, lawmakers were asking questions about whether the FBI, CIA, and DHS adequately shared information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev—the older brother killed during a gunfight with police.
Russian authorities contacted the FBI and CIA in 2011, citing concerns Tsarnaev could have ties to extremists. The FBI interviewed Tsarnaev, but closed the file three months later.
When Tsarnaev left the United States to travel to Dagestan—a militant-filled region in southern Russia—last year, DHS noted his departure, but the FBI apparently wasn’t aware of his travels. By the time he returned to the United States, his file was closed.
It may be impossible to know whether authorities could have prevented Tsarnaev from carrying out the Boston attacks. The government’s terror watch list includes as many as 500,000 names. And Marc Sageman—a terror expert and former CIA officer—says individuals without ties to larger networks are far more difficult to track.
Whatever the case, Sageman does think federal agencies should improve intelligence sharing, including sharing more information with local authorities. Agencies often want to hoard their data, he says: “But unfortunately, that’s detrimental to the greater good.”
That’s a plea Michael Downing made to Congress six years ago. A deputy chief at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Downing leads the force’s counter-terrorism bureau.
In a congressional hearing in 2007, Downing testified that federal agencies should share more information with local police departments. He said “over-classifying” intelligence could hinder local police officers from helping to thwart terror plots and other crimes.
In a phone interview after the Boston bombings, Downing said information sharing has become better since 2007. But he also said the LAPD has grown its own capacity for intelligence gathering and holds weekly briefings on threats across the United States and overseas.
It’s a pattern first set by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). After the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD developed a massive counter-terrorism task force that now includes nearly 1,000 officers. Some operate overseas. The department spent $330 million of its $4.6 billion annual budget on fighting terrorism.
So far, it’s been effective: Since 2001, the NYPD and local FBI agents have foiled at least 16 plots against New York City. Plots have included plans to blow up a subway station and a plot to detonate a 1,000-pound car bomb outside the Federal Reserve Bank in New York last year.
Tensions still flair between the NYPD and FBI over how to handle investigations, but the police force has also faced difficulties from another source: local groups opposed to their strategies. For example, groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have blasted the NYPD for its program of monitoring Muslim communities.
Police say they use the program to follow leads that often lead to gathering information on local Muslim businesses and mosques. Critics call it spying and say it unfairly targets innocent Muslims. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a series of stories critical of the program. Officials at the Department of Justice said they would review it.
The legal group Muslim Advocates is representing eight local Muslims in a lawsuit against the police force. Hundreds gathered for rallies to protest the practice.
But not all Muslims agree: Zuhdi Jasser—head of the American Islamic Leadership Coalition—held a smaller rally outside NYPD headquarters last year to support the police program.
Jasser says police shouldn’t spy on Muslims, but they should be free to monitor public spaces and follow leads in local communities. (NYPD officials say they follow legal standards for gathering information, and the New Jersey attorney general found the program didn’t violate his own state’s laws.)
After the Boston bombings, Jasser said the fresh attacks show the country still faces threats from radicalized Muslims. The elder Tsarnaev sometimes attended a local Boston mosque, and leaders said he had at least two outbursts during sermons since last year.
The surviving bomber said the brothers learned how to make a bomb from al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. The web-based publication carries graphic instructions for carrying out a personal jihad, and a recent edition featured a sidebar:
“Whom do I work with? In these small operations, work alone. Let it be a secret between Allah and you. Make it impossible for any one to point a finger at you. This is for your safety. It is also interesting, sitting in your living room watching the news you made and how the kuffar [non-Muslims] are suffering, a tit-for-tat.”
Jasser—a physician and author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam—says moderate Muslims should support police efforts to root out threats in their communities. “We should be saying we recognize we have a problem, and we need help with it,” said Jasser. “And if the leads bring them into the mosques, then so be it.”
In Los Angeles, deputy chief Downing says his department conducts outreach to religious communities, including Muslims. He says some community members have offered leads to police that have led to arrests. Downing says it’s one part of asking all citizens to be vigilant to what’s happening around them: “I think the days of staying in your own isolated world are over.”
Back in Massachusetts, pastor Chris Bass of Redeemer Fellowship Church is encouraging his congregants to build relationships with neighbors still shaken by the manhunt that shut them in their homes for more than 15 hours.
The pastor of one of the only evangelical churches in Watertown says finding normalcy isn’t easy for some: “As I talk to neighbors, there are still tears in their eyes when you get past the surface.”
Bass understands the emotion: He spent nearly 15 hours hunkered in his Watertown home with his wife and five small children while police searched for Tsarnaev. In the early morning hours, Bass kept the television volume low so he could listen for doorknobs rattling or windows breaking. He later watched SWAT teams search his backyard with guns drawn.
The pastor’s congregation of 125 meets in a church building on a street once known as “historic church row.” Today, many of the churches have closed. The former First Baptist Church across the street is now home to luxury condos. An old Methodist Church on another corner held its last service last summer. Locals have converted other empty churches to historical societies.
That leaves plenty of neighbors for Bass’ church to serve. On the Sunday after the bombing, he preached a message of God’s sovereignty in affliction and His offer of salvation to all who turn to Christ.
Bass doesn’t plan to hold out hollow hope. “At the end of the day, I don’t have a promise from God that we’re not going to get bombed again tomorrow,” he says. “So we go to where we do have promises, and where we do have hope, and it’s all tied up in the gospel.”
That doesn’t mean the church will automatically fill up. The first Sunday after the manhunt brought a handful of visitors. But Bass looks forward to his church members serving neighbors slowly, over time. “We know it’s not a sprint,” he says. “It’s a marathon.”