BOSTON STRONG: The Urban Shield drill in November 2012.
Photo by Scott Eisen
BOSTON STRONG: The Urban Shield drill in November 2012.

Terror-fighting tangle

Terrorism | The effort to protect Americans is tied up in a morass of competing agencies, bureaucratic complexity, and special interests

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

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.

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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.


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