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March 5, 2015

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Politicizing terrorism in America

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Ed Davis isn’t a political partisan. He’s Boston’s police commissioner.

It’s his job to keep the public safe, not to protect the egos of politicians or fellow law enforcement officers.

So citizens of all ideologies should pay attention when Davis says he didn’t know about a Russian intelligence warning about Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or about Tsarnaev’s overseas travel.

At last week’s hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, Davis also noted that three Boston police detectives and a sergeant are assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, none knew anything about the warnings on Tsarnaev.

Asked by the committee chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, if he would have liked to have known, Davis said yes. Asked if Boston police would have given Tsarnaev a “second look” if they had known, Davis said: “Absolutely.”

The usual efforts are underway to politicize terrorism in America. This time, Republicans are looking to blame a Democratic administration for national security lapses. This time, Democrats are resisting that narrative.

Shortly after Friday’s hearing, Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, put out a statement saying the Boston police representatives on the joint terrorism task force had access to all relevant information regarding terrorism assessments — including the assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

While the whole story behind the Boston Marathon bombings is not yet known, certain parts of the picture are becoming clearer.

The response to the April 15 attack is a testament to training efforts put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When bombs went off in Boston, police and first responders were prepared. They knew what to do, and doing it saved lives and minimized chaos. Yet questions remain about the FBI’s inability to identify the suspects once surveillance photos were obtained. Someone in the FBI questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev; who was it and why didn’t the person recognize Tsarnaev once photos of the bombing suspects were in FBI hands?

What happened before the April 15 bombing — or, rather, what didn’t happen — also points to a need for greater systemic reform.

Based on testimony from Davis and Kurt N. Schwartz, the Massachusetts undersecretary for homeland security and emergency management, there was a breakdown in information-sharing between federal and local law enforcement in the run-up to the Boston attack. Former Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who also testified, went so far as to tell the committee that the attack could have been prevented if local authorities knew about Tsarnaev.

Lieberman, who helped overhaul the national security bureaucracy after 9/11, said the failure to notify local authorities “may be one of the most significant and painful lessons” of the Boston attack.

Despite Lieberman’s claim, it’s hard to say whether the attack could have been prevented if local police knew about the FBI’s questioning of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his subsequent trip to Russia, and return to the United States. But a heads-up about possible terrorists in their midst might make the possibility of a violent act less theoretical and more real for local police. Circulating names and prioritizing the most dangerous could put local police on higher alert and guard against complacency a dozen years after 9/11.

Even so, “There’s no computer that’s going to spit out a terrorist name,” said Davis. “It’s the community being involved.”

More details about the apparent radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev are starting to emerge. As they do, they raise questions about what friends and relatives observed about the Tsarnaev brothers; some of those questions are politically sensitive.

As the Boston Globe reported, Tamerlan Tsarnaev angrily disrupted a January talk at a Cambridge mosque when a speaker compared the Prophet Mohammed and the peace activist Martin Luther King Jr. It was the second time he showed signs of embracing and more radical theology, and in this instance, he was shouted out of the mosque. This isn’t a call to demonize Muslims; but at what point is there a responsibility for others in the congregation to pass on their concerns?

Instead of spouting rhetoric and splitting along partisan lines, Washington should do what Boston has done: Pull together and try to improve a system that will never be fool-proof.

Davis’s candor should be recognized for what it is. It’s a message from the front lines of law enforcement to forget about politics, think about the victims of April 15, and, in their names, do whatever we can as a country to make everyone safer.

Joan Vennochi writes for the Boston Globe.

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  1. In the laser focus on one incident it is easy [or convenient] to forget that religious, ethnic and cultural terrorism encompasses a large group of people both state and non-state players. If you want the ability to scrutinize every bit of information which pops up on the radar you will have to agree to greatly increase the investigatory powers of government, legal and extra-legal. We have already done this post 9/11. Do you want further expansion of Homeland Security and domestic law enforcement, the CIA, DIA, NSA? Do you want authority for the use of drones in the US? Do you want expanded Presidential authority for rendition, military trials, Guantanamo-like facilities? You do realize that terrorism comes in all colors....Muslims, yes but also the Jewish Defense League, the IRA, the UDF, the Moro Army, and a hundred others large and small. Within our borders we have not only Earth First but also Citizens' Councils, the John Birch Society, assorted religious groups and avid readers of the Turner Diaries encouraged by their fellow travelers on talk radio. The biggest danger to the United States is not from Muslim terrorists, it is rather from a growing fascist movement in the United States calling for ever increasing draconian police and corporate power.

  2. I disagree with the columnist and poster. For cooperative efforts between the FBI and Boston authorities to work, the Feds have to share information on terrorism risks with the local authorities. This was the lesson supposedly learned from 9-11 and not followed prior to April 15, 2013 in Boston. Would, had it happened, stopped the Marathon Massacre? We'll never know for sure but it is inexcusable that it wasn't.

    Carmine D