Experts call for proactive fusion centers after Boston bombing

4/15/2013 Boston Marathon Bombing aftermath
Police officers gather in Boston on April 18, 2013, during investigation of marathon bombing.

Experts call for proactive fusion centers after Boston bombing
By Mickey McCarter

As Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faced 30 charges in federal court Wednesday, lawmakers convened to contemplate lapses in information sharing that may have allowed the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing to elude detection by authorities before the plot came to fruition.

Witnesses testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee suggested that more proactive participation by federal and state authorities in state and local fusion centers potentially could thwart similar plots.

Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, prescribed empowerment of state and local police officers as the eyes and ears of the FBI and other federal agents. The FBI, at roughly 13,000 agents globally, would benefit from greater use of some 800,000 police officers nationwide, Giuliani said.

In so doing, the FBI should be willing to provide training to state and local law enforcement agents on how to spot terrorism. Giuliani recommended protocols developed for spotting precursors of terrorism developed by former New York City Police Chief William Bratton.

Doing so would simply be a good use of limited resources, Giuliani said.

“You have to have some degree of discipline and economy of what you investigate,” Giuliani said. “You can’t investigate everything.”

The FBI apparently would not have investigated travel to Russia by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a second suspect who died in a police shootout in the days after the April 15 Boston bombing, said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee chairman. But if the FBI had any information on the elder Tsarnaev, it apparently did not make any referral of that information to state and local authorities, which could have occurred through a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) or a fusion center.

With a referral to a state or local police department, the FBI could pass information along even if the agency doesn’t pursue an investigation itself. Local officials then could make a decision as to whether or not to pursue their own investigation, Giuliani said.

In Giuliani’s view, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia was “startling” given that his family applied for and received asylum in the United States citing a fear of persecution in Russia if they returned. Such a strange event warranted investigation by either federal authorities or Boston metropolitan authorities where Tsarnaev lived.

Stressing that he was not familiar with the specifics in Boston, the FBI often will protest that it cannot trust local police departments with valuable information for fear they will leak it to the public, Giuliani said. If that’s the case, then the FBI should go to the police department in question and confront the problem.

“We can no longer deal with this by not sharing information. We are going to miss other Bostons if the federal government doesn’t engage local police departments in a big way,” Giuliani said.

That said, self-generated terrorists like the Tsarnaevs operating in small groups leave a smaller footprint than large organized groups like the 9/11 hijackers, Giuliani said, making them harder to detect by any law enforcement authorities.

Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called for closer coordination between fusion centers and JTTFs, which were created separately and often operate separately.

Representatives from police departments participating in fusion centers routinely should request permission to share information with their agency chiefs, and every JTTF should share information back with host departments.

Local authorities also should take charge of investigations at fusion centers more often, Leiter said. Fusion centers parse out information from federal agencies to state and local communities and then take information from state and local officials to federal authorities for coordination with JTTFs.

But state and local authorities could “be more involved in the investigative work upfront to allocate scarce resources,” Leiter said.

At the same time, federal authorities could share more information systematically and put the burden of deciding to investigate on state and local officials. This may result in more follow-up on cases like Tsarnaev’s travel.

Leiter agreed that state and local fusion centers require training because officers and analysts cannot always recognize radicalization. FBI agents also could require recurring training, said Leiter, now a senior counselor at Palantir Technologies.

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