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Amy Zegart

Criminal Minds

Why the FBI still isn't good at stopping terrorists.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

About the only thing that moved faster than the manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was speculation about whether the FBI should have been able to stop them. Just days after the April 15 attack, House Intelligence Committee Chairman (and former FBI agent) Mike Rogers was on the Sunday talk show circuit, staunchly defending the bureau. "I don’t think they missed anything….You can’t ask them to do something with nothing," Rogers told "Meet the Press." Meanwhile, over at CNN, Senator Lindsey Graham was blaming the FBI for dropping the ball. "The charges and countercharges are stunning," said one FBI official. "The dust hasn’t even settled. Let’s find out what happened."

Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don’t think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.

As Washington cranks into "what went wrong" mode, the temptation will be to focus on whether individuals made mistakes. Who investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and what, if anything, did the investigator miss? Did FBI officials ignore Russia’s warnings when they shouldn’t have? These kinds of questions are important, but they can also be misleading — because the root causes of intelligence failures are often much harder to see. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 did not occur because someone somewhere dropped the ball. They happened because our entire intelligence apparatus didn’t have the cultures, career incentives, or structures to get the ball even close to the right people.

These are still very early days in the Boston case. But it is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is really new enough. Transformation — moving the bureau from a crime-fighting organization to a domestic intelligence agency — has been the FBI’s watchword since 9/11. And much has changed. Yes, the bureau has thwarted a number of plots and gotten much better at handling its terrorism portfolio. Yes, the bureau has tripled the number of intelligence analysts. And, yes, the FBI now generates thousands of pages of intelligence reports each year.

But the silent killer of innovation in the FBI has always been culture — specifically, a century-old law enforcement culture that glorifies catching perps on a street rather than connecting dots behind a desk, that prizes agents above intelligence analysts, and that views job number one as gathering evidence of a past or ongoing crime for a day in court instead of preventing the next attack. Culture can have serious real-world consequences, coloring how talented people in the FBI do their jobs and, perhaps more importantly, what they think their jobs actually are.

Case in point: What exactly does it mean to "investigate" a terrorist suspect like Tamerlan Tsarnaev before an attack transpires? Sounds straightforward. It isn’t. The FBI has always been world-class at investigating a terrorist attack after the boom. Investigating before the boom is another matter.

In the FBI’s traditional law enforcement view of the world, pre-boom terrorism investigations are supposed to hunt narrowly for evidence that someone has committed a terrorist offense or is in the midst of breaking the law right now. In the intelligence view of the world, these investigations are supposed to search widely for information that someone could be a terrorist next month, next year, or next decade — or that they are somehow connected to others who might. These are two radically different perspectives. One focuses on the past and present, looking specifically for evidence to make or close a case. It’s a snapshot. The other peers over the horizon, looking broadly for information to compile a moving picture. Law enforcement searches for closure. Intelligence searches for ground truth. This is not just a legal matter about what authorities the FBI can use when. It’s a matter of what perspective an investigator takes, what questions are asked, how information is interpreted, what follow-up occurs, whether and how information gets synthesized and analyzed to see patterns before disaster strikes.

The FBI says it "gets" intelligence and does it well now, but recent history says otherwise.

Consider Maj. Nidal Hasan’s attack in 2009 on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, which killed 13 people. The FBI "investigated" Hasan, all right, but it wasn’t pretty. Nearly a year before the attack, the bureau learned that he was emailing Anwar al-Awlaki, the dangerous and inspirational al Qaeda cleric in Yemen who was later killed in a drone strike. Yet the FBI’s investigation of Hasan took just four hours. One Joint Terrorism Task Force member in Washington ran his name through some databases and found nothing alarming. He decided not to interview anyone, including Hasan himself, and his FBI supervisor agreed. He reviewed Hasan’s two emails to Awlaki (including one that asked whether Muslim soldiers who commit fratricide would be considered martyrs) and concluded that Hasan must be okay because he was emailing using his real name. The investigator, who was a Defense Department official temporarily assigned to the FBI’s terrorism task force, had almost no counterterrorism experience, and it showed. The investigation was viewed entirely through a law enforcement lens, asking whether Hasan was a terrorist at that moment, not whether he could be heading down a dangerous path to radicalization and violence. The investigation was looking to close a case, not pull an intelligence thread.

There were plenty of threads to be pulled. Hasan was no clever jihadist operating in the shadows. For years, he had been openly spewing extremist rhetoric that alarmed numerous peers and superiors inside the Army. A colleague and instructor each described him as a "ticking time bomb." In oral presentations, class papers, and casual conversations, Hasan justified suicide bombings, charged that U.S. military operations were a war against Islam, defended Osama bin Laden, and declared that his religion took precedence over the U.S. Constitution he was sworn to defend as an Army officer. Just about the only thing Hasan did not do was wear a T-shirt that said, "I am an Islamist extremist contemplating acts of violence against my fellow soldiers."

There’s more. As soon as the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force concluded that no active terrorist activities could be found, the investigation ended, even though Hasan’s emails to Awlaki continued for the next six months and demonstrated growing radicalization. None of this was known to the FBI because nobody was asking. The case was closed. Hasan was not a terrorist. But he was becoming one.

I have to wonder: Is this what happened in Boston? Were FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators looking for evidence of a current crime when they should h
ave been looking for intelligence about a potential future threat? Did they even know enough about Chechen violent Islamist extremism or Tamerlan Tsarnaev to ask the right questions? Did they tap FBI analysts to gain background knowledge or a broader understanding of the evolving terrorist threat environment? Nearly half of all personnel on FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces are loaned to the FBI from other agencies and most come with law enforcement backgrounds and skills. As one former senior FBI counterterrorism official told me, "They bring strengths…but those guys, most of them, are wired to look for evidence, just like agents. Let’s be honest."

Perhaps Boston was a horrific, unpreventable tragedy. Maybe the two suspects did not have enough of a trail for the FBI to have stopped them in time. Maybe the Russian government withheld too much information for too long. Maybe we did all we could, the best we could, and it wasn’t enough. As more information comes to light, however, more light needs to be shined on the craggy hold of the FBI’s law enforcement culture and whether it played a role. In post-mortems, like most intelligence matters, getting the right answers hinges on asking the right questions.

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

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