Boston police chief: Revise FBI information-sharing agreement

Boston Police Chief Edward Davis listens to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino on April 21, 2013.

Boston Police Chief Edward Davis listens to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino on April 21, 2013.

Boston police chief: Revise FBI information-sharing agreement
By Mickey McCarter

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the commissioner of the Boston Police Department believes the department has everything it needs to respond to a similar attack again.

Except for one small thing. Edward Davis would like to see a revision of the memorandum of agreement (MOU) between his police force and the FBI.

Although the two work well together with other police agencies in a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Boston police are not on “equal footing” with the FBI in the agreement that specifies their cooperation, Davis told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday.

“The MOU could be worked on from a more equal way so that if there is an exchange of information, it isn’t all one-sided,” Davis said.

So local officials should have any information that may indicate a terrorist threat to their city, Davis said. The MOU should contain a mandate that federal authorities have to share any such information they may have with local authorities so they can take action. However, there is no such mandate.

Under current circumstances, the FBI could make a decision to withhold information in favor of pursuing a prosecution or investigation rather than of empowering local officials to protect public safety, Davis said.

While he would necessarily suggest that anything has been done wrong to date, an information-sharing mandate on federal agencies appears to be beneficial in the wake of the bombing of the Boston Marathon. In a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee occurring at the same time, lawmakers and witnesses contemplated the possibility that the FBI had information on deceased suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who traveled to Russia under suspicious circumstances prior to the bombing.

Observers have suggested that Tsarnaev may have met with Islamist radicals while in Russia, but the FBI has not disclosed what information, if any, it had on the trip.

The Boston Police Department has four officers assigned to an FBI-led JTTF, but they were not aware of any information on Tsarnaev’s travel overseas despite his residence in their metropolitan area, Davis said. Conversations with other officials such as the police commissioner of the New York Police Department have led Davis to conclude that he should assign more officers to the JTTF as well.

“I’m not saying anything was done wrong,” the police commissioner said. “But I am saying there should be a full and equal partnership.”

Overall cooperation has been very good in between federal, state and local agencies in the investigation of the bombing, Davis added. The fusion center used by Boston area authorities also worked well, and they were able to participate in classified conversations with federal authorities in the sensitive compartmentalized information facility (SCIF) provided in the fusion center.

But the JTTF MOU could have more teeth in it to push information both ways, he continued.

State and local agencies sometimes find themselves with limited access to federal systems, locking them out of discovering any information that may affect their jurisdiction. The FBI and other federal agencies should inform state and local authorities of any information on terrorism in a particular region, even if they have closed a specific case.

“At this point in time, that is not happening,” Davis said.

Moreover, local task force officers cannot simply report information back to their superiors at the local department without specific authorization to do so.

Agencies should collaborate to remove such restrictions, Davis said. Nothing in legislation prohibits that collaboration from occurring; it’s merely the language of the MOU and the culture of the FBI that restrict the flow of information.

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