The Wall Street Journal had an opinion piece by Bill Bratton, former Police Commissioner in Boston (and subsequently, New York and LA), yesterday. Bratton notes that interagency cooperation is a real thing today, and not the zero-sum battle for primacy that it was in his day (in Boston, the late eighties to early nineties).
One good sign is that there don’t appear to be any major turf battles going on among local, state and federal authorities involved in the investigation. The FBI quickly took leadership, thanks to protocols put in place in the late 1990s and after 9/11 that set jurisdiction for different types of incidents. This allows other agencies (at all levels of government) to fall into line and know their respective roles. When I was on the Boston force, by contrast, all sorts of incidents—for example, a plane running off the runway at Logan Airport and into the harbor—would be followed by unproductive turf battles between city and state police.
The past few days have also vindicated the sort of heightened preparedness emphasized by security and health officials since 9/11. Controlling crowds and directing traffic remain priorities for Boston police on the day of the marathon, but they have also drilled to prepare for much more. The police tent by the finish line has gotten bigger over the years. Whereas it was once equipped mainly to deal with exhausted and dehydrated runners, it now hosts a wide range of personnel ready to activate various contingency plans, including responding to a terrorist attack—how to deploy emergency-medical technicians, where to arrange the ingress and egress of ambulances, etc. Then there was the senior doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital who noted that his team was prepared for the gruesome injuries they encountered because they received training recently from Israeli doctors experienced with terrorist bombings.
Bratton goes on to note the limits of police in securing something like the Boston Marathon, which starts in distant suburban Hopkinton, nearer Worcester than the finish line, and ends on whar are normally downtown’s busiest streets. Since they can’t lock down such an immense target, they need to be able to respond.
Such preparedness is so important because a democratic society simply cannot secure all venues and events at all times. There is no ability to cordon off a whole marathon route and treat miles of urban streets with the degree of security at, say, a baseball stadium. It is impossible to secure everything. There will always be vulnerabilities along a 26-mile route, and police will always have to make decisions about how to deploy their finite resources.
Public-safety officials are doing just that in London, where I have been visiting this week and where some 35,000 runners are expected for the city’s annual marathon on Sunday. Police will surely send extra resources to those parts of the course near historical sites such as Tower Bridge and Big Ben—the kind of landmarks that attract disproportionate attention from those who seek to create violent spectacles of mayhem.
One thing that is always available to respond to terrorists is — the public. In Boston, as in every post-9/11 terrorist event, members of the public have stepped up to do the right thing. One young man who was waiting to see his girlfriend finish is alive today because a bystander applied an improvised tourniquet to one severed leg and put direct pressure on the other leg’s pulsing femoral artery. Another woman who was critically wounded was comforted — and treated — by a stranger as she lay wounded. The individual then handed her off to professional responders, and walked away, seeking no recognition; she only knows him as “Matt.” These guys are not on the org chart that Bratton and other high-level planners have, but time and again, starting with United 93, the regular guy has stepped up to help.
The same thing has happened with the investigation. As Bratton notes in his article, so many citizens came forward with so much video that evidence managers and their systems were overwhelmed — but they, too, stepped up when they had to. As a result, law enforcement yesterday received pictures and other information about suspects. For the bombers, the clock is ticking on the end of their lives at liberty, and a partnership of the public and Public Safety wound the clock.
Contrary to the suspicions and beliefs of many professionals, the citizenry have not botched, screwed up, or somehow failed the response or the investigation. They have assisted, and from what we have seen have had no complaints about handing off to the pros when the time comes. But used right, Joe Public, whose instinct is usually to do the right thing, Hollywood notwithstanding, is a force multiplier for public safety managers.
Bratton goes on to say that the police should not be ruling any class of suspect in or out at this point, simply following the evidence where it goes. Does he have that little faith in his former subordinates and their Federal alies? Of course that’s what they’re going to do. But he does cite evidence for his fear: “After the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, investigators lost months focusing erroneously on a security guard who was near the scene.” True enough.
He could also point out the many rabbit holes the FBI’s Amerithrax probe went down, or the recent Texas investigations that a fund-raising group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, managed to distract from the actual murderers (who had been identified pre-mortem by one of the victims, already). What those botched investigations had in common was bad conduct by LE leakers and the press working together. “The public should be prepared for more false or misleading news reports like those on Wednesday announcing an arrest in the case,” Bratton advises.
Part of the problem is the nature of police work, which is often a matter of building evidence to support conviction of a criminal who clearly did it. Part of it is the great sucking 24/7 news vacuum, which is going to be filled with something. Andy McCarthy, the prosecutor who put away the Blind Sheik, explains why investigators would rather not share their progress with the world:
This is a common phenomenon in the high profile investigations that follow terrorist attacks. The investigators actually working the case would rather there were no disclosures made about the status of the investigation. At this point, their work is best done in secret — or, at least, as much secrecy as is possible. Otherwise, any conspirators who may not already have fled will be alerted that it’s time to skip town, destroy evidence, and intimidate witnesses. These investigative agencies actually work for the public, however, and the public has an extraordinarily high level of interest in the progress of the case. Thus the agencies have official press agents whose job it is to keep the public reasonably informed without compromising investigative leads and tactics — not an easy job.
Then there is the most unruly and damaging dynamic in the equation: the media and its anonymous law-enforcement sources. It seems every media outlet is in a rabid competition to be first, rather than most accurate, with every breaking development. This combines toxically with the fact that sources who hide behind anonymity — precisely because they are not supposed to be running off at the mouth — have widely varying levels of knowledge about the actual goings-on in the case.
Couple this with the fact that most journalists and many agents are not well-versed in the esoterica of the justice system — in which, for example, “arrest” is different from “custody”; a “suspect” is different from a “person of interest”; and “detention” is different from “apprehension” — and you have the roadmap to error-ridden reporting. The problem is not that reporters and sources are intentionally misleading the public. It is that their information is both less reliable than they think it is and easily given to miscommunication. A potential witness’s voluntary submission to a law-enforcement interview could be mistaken for a suspect’s surrender to police custody. Solid leads on a potential bomber based on video and forensic evidence could be miscommunicated as a solid identification of a suspect. The issuance of an arrest warrant for a person not in custody could be miscommunicated as an actual arrest.
After having said all that, McCarthy does speculate about who is most likely behind the Boston bombs. Although “speculate” is a bit strong; what he’s really doing is noting that the media is shying away from one possible line of inquiry.
We know that jihadists tend to target predominantly non-Muslim civilian populations with mass destruction weapons, as was done in Boston on Monday. In addition, their preferred weapon for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the improvised explosive device (IED) — the kind of home-made bomb that is recommended by al Qaeda’s Inspired Magazine and that often employs “pressure cookers” of the sort used in two recent jihadist terror attacks in the U.S. The attacks on Monday were by IEDs that featured pressure cookers. None of that proves that the Boston Marathon bombing is the work of jihadists, but it does underscore that — absent hard information pointing in a different direction — it is entirely reasonable to suspect that this is the case and to investigate accordingly.
By contrast, we haven’t had much “anti-government” terrorism but when we’ve had it — e.g., the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — it tends to be targeted at government installations, not civilians. And historically, the radical Left is far more wedded to violent “direct action” than conservative movements like the Tea Party, which has no history of violence. It should go without saying that we have had terrorists of varying political stripes, and even of no coherent political persuasion. Therefore, no radical ideology that urges violence should be ruled out at this point when, apparently, no perpetrators have been identified. How strange, though, that what experience suggests are the least likely scenarios — conservatives or anti-government extremists striking savagely at their defenseless fellow citizens — are being embraced seriously (even wistfully) by some media pundits, while one must walk on eggshells to describe scenarios whose proving out would surprise no one.
Bratton, a former top cop who would like to be a top cop again, is constrained by that. If you could talk to Bill Bratton, the former beat patrolman, without Bill Bratton, the police politician, intervening, you might find a view of the case close to McCarthy’s. Certainly the most likely perpetrators are Moslems, jihadis. But they’re not the only possible perpetrators, and so McCarthy would almost certainly agree with Bratton, that every line of evidence must be followed where it leads, and it’s not impossible that the media’s preferred perpetrator, a white guy in a wife-beater shirt with a Ron Paul sticker on his pickup truck, is to blame.
So far, from the outside looking in, the investigation looks solid. Maybe we should wait to see what the investigators find out.