We may never know exactly why young men like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might decide to plant two bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line.
But we should be able to find out exactly what law enforcement authorities did well before and after the attack — and what they could have done better. That’s what Representative William R. Keating has been trying to find out.
A recent Globe investigation painted a picture of the two bombing suspects as the product of a dysfunctional immigrant family. But Keating cares less about the dysfunctional Tsarnaev family and more about the possibility of a dysfunctional system of government information sharing. Government dysfunction, he still fears, might have allowed the brothers to slip through the cracks and execute a deadly plan. And it might allow another tragedy to occur if it is not properly addressed.
Keating, a former prosecutor who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, has been asking such questions since the bombs went off. Last July 31, he sent a letter to newly appointed FBI director James Comey, seeking specific information about what the agency knew about the alleged bombers before the attack and what was shared with local police. In no apparent rush to respond, the FBI got back to the Democratic Bay State congressman on Nov. 22.
The FBI’s letter basically reiterated the agency’s past contention — that local police had access to everything they needed to know through a computer system called “Guardian.” The letter also mentioned the need to protect “civil liberties and privacy” while investigating crime, terrorism, and threats to national security — a curious consideration, given recent headlines about the extensive government-sanctioned data collection program that routinely violates the civil liberties and privacy of millions of American citizens who have no connection to crime, terrorism, or threats to national security.
The FBI’s response left Keating still questioning the quality of information-sharing between law enforcement authorities. Searching the Guardian database, he said, is like looking for “a needle in a haystack.” He predicts the Homeland Security Committee’s upcoming report on the Marathon bombings — expected in early 2014 — will address those concerns and recommend procedural changes.
Keating is also looking forward to an upcoming report from a Florida prosecutor about the FBI’s shooting of Ibragim Todashev, who was being questioned about a triple slaying in Waltham, which might be somehow tied to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The circumstances of Todashev’s death are mysterious and raise questions about the actions of the FBI, as well as about Massachusetts state troopers who participated in the Todashev investigation.
“I just wonder this out loud,” said Keating. “I’ll be curious to see what this investigation entailed. How much of it is original? How much of it was given by the FBI? Will it really be an independent review by Florida?”
It helps to understand the “why” behind the actions the Tsarnaev brothers are believed to have taken. It’s not about sympathizing with killers; it’s about sensitizing us to people who are so desperate and unhappy they turn to violence. What we learn about the Tsarnaev brothers could help us see danger signs in others and stop them before they act.
But it helps even more to understand any breakdowns in law enforcement’s ability to identify threats and act on them. It’s not about blame; it’s about prevention. Keating finds the bureaucratic obstacles frustrating, and they should be to the rest of us, too.
There has already been a lot of turnover at agencies involved in the Marathon investigation.
Robert S. Mueller departed as FBI director in June. So did Richard DesLauriers, the head of the Boston FBI office. Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary, resigned in July. In September, Edward Davis announced his resignation as Boston police commissioner.
In his testimony before Congress, Davis said the FBI should share more information about potential terror threats with local police. Those concerns shouldn’t disappear with the leaders who left their posts.
Accountability should be more than one city’s concern, but Boston has a special interest in learning the whole story. If “Boston strong” means resilience, “Boston smart” should mean asking tough questions and demanding complete answers — no ducking allowed. We owe that much to the victims.