The House Committee on Homeland Security’s hearing on the Boston Marathon bombings on Thursday amounted to more than the usual political posturing: It exposed clear deficiencies in communications among intelligence- and law-enforcement agencies. In their testimony, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis and Massachusetts undersecretary for homeland security Kurt Schwartz offered significant insights into how federal and local authorities might address the deficiencies that apparently allowed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to plan and execute the attack despite concerns by the FBI and Russian intelligence agencies about his growing radicalism.
At the hearing, Davis said that the Boston police had no knowledge of those reports. A few hours later, the FBI issued a statement saying that the 2011 assessment of Tsarnaev was in a database that was available to a Boston-area terrorism task force — one that includes Boston police. Just seeing the assessment might not have stopped the attack, as Davis pointed out. But whatever the cause of the breakdown, the failure to share the information — and the continued finger-pointing between agencies yesterday — shows the need to improve coordination.
The hearing also provided another chance to reflect on the instances when Tamerlan Tsarnaev expressed radical views, or indicated a tendency toward violence. No church, mosque, school, or community group bears specific responsibility for identifying potential terrorists, but local and state officials should provide clear channels for people within those institutions to voice concerns. The “see something, say something” message doesn’t seem to have taken root. Even when clear photos of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were released, no one from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where Dzhokhar was a student, reported any similarities.
State and local governments need to do more to create a culture, backed by structures and mechanisms, in which everyday citizens understand that they are part of the effort to guard against terrorism. The need for authorities to enlist the help of institutions such as mosques and churches and schools, rather than infiltrate them, was a key message of the hearing.
Finally, while there’s room for skepticism about the insistence of state and local officials that any budget cuts forced by the sequester will damage public safety, the hearing demonstrated that past federal funding that went into creating a team approach to emergency response saved lives after the bombing. It ensured that all responders shared a common radio signal, among other improvements.
Davis and Schwartz each promised rigorous after-action assessments to improve their anti-terrorism capabilities in the future. Hopefully, Governor Patrick will appoint an independent commission to oversee those efforts. As the hearing showed, there are plenty of lessons to go around.