Analysis of the FBI's Failure to Stop the Boston Marathon Bombings

Detailed response and analysis of the inspectors general report on the Boston Marathon bombings:

Two opposite mistakes in an after-the-fact review of a terrorist incident are equally damaging. One is to fail to recognize the powerful difference between foresight and hindsight in evaluating how an investigative or intelligence agency should have behaved. After the fact, we know on whom we should have focused attention as a suspect, and we know what we should have protected as a target. With foresight alone, we know neither of these critically important clues to what happened and why. With hindsight, we can focus all of our attention narrowly; with foresight, we have to spread it broadly, as broadly as the imagination of our attackers may roam.

The second mistake is equally important. It is to confuse the fact that people in official positions, like others, will inevitably make mistakes in carrying out any complicated task, with the idea that no mistakes were really made. We can see mistakes with hindsight that can be avoided in the future by recognizing them clearly and designing solutions. After mistakes are made, nothing is more foolish than to hide them or pretend that they were not mistakes.

Posted on May 2, 2014 at 6:26 AM • 24 Comments

Comments

WmMay 2, 2014 6:53 AM

One glaring problem with the FBI is that they have blood on their hands. Nothing was done to a single agent after the murder of Randy Weaver's wife at Ruby Ridge or after their genocide at Waco. It takes God to watch over a nation concerning terrorist acts and unless a nation is willing to prosecute wrong doing, including within its own government, such terrorist acts will not be discovered by a terrorist government agency - the FBI.

AndyMay 2, 2014 7:33 AM

My favorite is the no fly list. Non citizens living and working in the U.S., deemed too dangerous to fly but not so dangerous that they're being sent home.

The reality is the anti terror community needs events like Boston to justify ballooning budgets and power grabs. I wonder if the feds knew how small the explosions would be and let it happen for the future benefits that would be gained by the anti terror community?

BobMay 2, 2014 7:47 AM

There is another theory, Bruce, namely that the bombings were an FBI entrapment that went wrong. Remember the Times Square case? What would have happened if the guy had figured-out the process himself and gone solo, would the FBI have taken responsibility?

That sounded a bit far-fetched to me, until the FBI killed one of Tsarnaev's friends..

AndrewLMay 2, 2014 7:51 AM

" nothing is more foolish than to hide them or pretend that they were not mistakes"

Anyone who has ever worked in any organisation large enough to have more than one level of management knows this is exactly the opposite of true.

Nothing is more foolish than to admit to making a mistake if you care about your paycheck and your career. Either find someone else to blame or deny there is anything wrong is the first lesson of management.


EvanMay 2, 2014 8:28 AM

Is there any publicly available data on how often foreign intelligence services share tips with their counterparts in the US vs how often those tips are shown to be reliable? It occurs to me that we always - always - hear about tips and warnings that were ignored in the aftermath of terrorist incidents, but I have no idea how many tips are received that are followed up successfully to the point that the person is exonerated or prosecuted.

If the FBI gets 100 tips from foreign governments every day and 99 of them turn out to be junk, then it's understandable, if tragic, that a few valid ones get lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, if they only get a few leads a month and they tend to be good, then failure is just inexcusable sloppiness.

NikoMay 2, 2014 10:23 AM

@Wm

Looks like the NSA fancies themselves to assume the role of god, regarding their obsession with data and so.

Clive RobinsonMay 2, 2014 11:02 AM

@ Andy,

My favorite is the no fly list. Non citizens living and working in the U.S., deemed too dangerous to fly but not so dangerous that they're being sent home.

Other people take a different view, the Russian Television English language service has on a number of occasions shown people who have been put on the no-fly list either after refusing to become informants / agent provocateurs for the FBI or other US LEOs.

Now whilst there might be room for disbelife in the stories it certainly is the FBI MO for other investigations along with abuse of process etc and itis not unknown for US LEOs to have cases hamstrung or thrown out by judges when such behaviour becomes evident in cases.

As has been pointed out on this blog many times quite a few commenters here have seen corelation in cases that they think makes it a reasonable suspicion that the FBI and other US LEOs have basicaly taken somebody of limited inteligence and in effect radicalised them given them materials etc and then arrested them just to make a faux case to justify their use of scarce tax resources.

Having dealt with non US LEOs determined to justify their existance and prejudicies and found them not just to be incapable and incompetant, but also clear examples of presenting falsified evidence into court to try to get convictions I can fully understand why people are doubting what they are being told.

EHMay 2, 2014 11:28 AM

If you google for "FBI admits mistakes," you'll see they do so about once per decade. In fact, they've already used that up for this decade in admitting mistakes in the Boston investigation, so the chance of their admitting that they mishandled these guys as assets is quite low.

Me againMay 2, 2014 11:47 AM

How do we keep them from going into the "suspect farming" business, or at least cut out the price supports for it?

Boris 'pi' PiwingerMay 2, 2014 12:26 PM

The claim of the total surveillance of the world (!) is that it would prevent terrorist attacks. It does not. Sometimes it is even used to organize terrorist attacks like with the drone attacks (note: they are not used in a war, but to terrorize people of a foreign nation).

DanielMay 2, 2014 12:53 PM

"with foresight, we have to spread it broadly, as broadly as the imagination of our attackers may roam."

I'm surprised you didn't call this statement out Bruce because it is exactly what leads to "worst case thinking" and the justification of the surveillance state. Rather than a rational approach to target analysis, the state has to suspect everything, everywhere--that isn't security, it is paranoia.

@AndrewL.

When I was a young man and worked for the bureaucracy my boss always told me, "never take on a project until you have identified the person who you intend to blame its failure on."

VanceMay 2, 2014 10:29 PM

Wow. The author's points 2 and 3 call for dragnet surveillance - if his high standard of proof to close a file is applied, the number of open cases will explode. It is simply impractical to use normal investigative techniques on so many people, and so the only answer is to implement bulk surveillance to monitor everyone.

His point 4 is the most chilling. He advocates that Federal and local law enforcement agencies should conduct intimidation campaigns against people. People, he is clear to say, who not only haven't done anything wrong enough to subject them to arrest, but who haven't even done anything to support getting a search warrant for their property. That a former Deputy Attorney General can claim that having agents deliver warnings to such a person's family and friends is "non-punitive and non-coercive" is frankly frightening.

Useyawown AnalysisMay 2, 2014 11:17 PM

The Anthrax Mailings had the same flawed approach. The FBI investigated the wrong guy. Later when a technique was discovered to fingerprint DNA markers from the weaponised Anthrax, they tested the flask that was originally used to first indentify the Anthrax (which of course contained DNA traces of the Anthrax), then blamed the guy who originally identified the Anthrax for them.

The reason the FBI blamed this guy was because a reporter pointed the finger at him. The FBI the proceeded to raid his home and publish his private emails to cast doubt upon him. Of course you could cast doubt on anyone if you troll through their personal journals, medical records and belongings. If the FBI had to resort to the lowset acts possible to tarnish the man, they obviously had no clue at all to the identity of the real perpetrator.

Even worse, this kind of behaviour from law enforcement easily leads people to figure perhaps the whole incident was manufactured. Who else would have access to a highly virilant strain of weaponised Anthrax except the government itself, and no one became sick, perhaps a diferent sample was provided to the lab for analysis.

Every now and then, law enforcement, often directed by government, likes to create hysteria then show they posess some level of control by framing an everyday normal person for a crime they didn't commit. Sometimes that crime never existed to begin with. Unfortunatly the man falsly accused for the Anthrax Mailings killed himself after his life was destroyed by the FBI. The FBI probably considers this very fortunate, case closed. This does not provide closure for anyone however as a man lies dead, his family traumatised never again to trust the authorities, the victims of the mailings never knowing who sent them, and a public left uninformed to what mistakes were made in the investigation and what really happened.

There are at least four or five research facilities in the US that have access to biological weapons. Rather than 'terrorists', it's the actions and mistakes of the authorities that the public really should be wary of. The likelyhood of anyone becoming a victim of a terrorist attack is so much lower than the chance of being run down by a car crossing the street, yet the resulting fear created by authorities and the government achieves the exact goal the terrosists set out to acomplish. It's for this reason every government has a Terrorist Interface Unit, control of the masses through manufactured fear.

You have to look behind the words to understand their meaning. May 3, 2014 3:18 PM

@Niko

"Looks like the NSA fancies themselves to assume the role of god, regarding their obsession with data and so."

That would be CIA:

"Richard Hayes: I remember a senator once asked me. When we talk about "CIA" why we never use the word "the" in front of it. And I asked him, do you put the word "the" in front of "God"?"

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343737/

Sender GleiwitzMay 3, 2014 4:06 PM

Useyawown Analysis, re "If the FBI had to resort to the lowset acts possible to tarnish the man, they obviously had no clue at all to the identity of the real perpetrator."

Yes, about that. Extra-special Agent Marion "Spike" Bowman knew who the anthrax perpetrator was. The guy who wrote the Biological Weapons Convention told him who did it.

http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/biowar101.html

The Spikester then destroyed the evidence, because somebody had noticed the blatant absurdity of looking for a lone wolf in this case. These are weapons of mass destruction under the secure control of the US government. Could a single lone nut steal a nuke? That's the level of security we're talking about - all the more because these were illegal biological weapons.

Funny how the lone nut just happened to have a hard-on for the two Senators who were dragging their feet on passing the PATRIOT Act.

US government officials attacked the domestic civilian population with illegal weapons. This is not hard.

AnnoyedMay 4, 2014 10:40 PM

For the past year (or more) we've been hearing about how it's necessary for the NSA to see and hear everything in order to prevent terrorism.

The Boston bombing is clear evidence that this program simply doesn't work as advertised. Why have the congressmen / women and media outlets who denounce bulk collection been more vocal?

Maybe it's considered "too soon" to talk about the bombings in a "negative" light?

65535May 5, 2014 7:49 PM

The Boston bombings ruined the trust of the NSA/CIA/FBI/Homeland Security structure for me.

These combined agencies were handed clear leads on a terrorist suspect and failed to act. The outcome was gruesome.

Worse, I would guess that Putin and his FSB will no longer throw pears of intelligence wisdom to the ungrateful US spy complex given the current geopolitical situation.

“The Anthrax Mailings had the same flawed approach.” -Useyawown Analysis

I mostly agree. Worse, one of the most invasive surveillance programs was then put in place.

“Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) is an imaging system employed by the United States Postal Service (USPS) that takes photographs of the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States.”

"Computer security and information privacy expert Bruce Schneier compared MICT to the mass surveillance of the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed in June 2013 by Edward Snowden. Schneier said, "Basically, [the USPS is] doing the same thing as the [NSA] programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren't reading the contents."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mail_Isolation_Control_and_Tracking

"There is another theory, Bruce, namely that the bombings were an FBI entrapment that went wrong… That sounded a bit far-fetched to me, until the FBI killed one of Tsarnaev's friends…” –Bob S.

Yes, that is a theory. It shows the case is not entirely closed. We know that Tsarnaev had probably been involved in other crimes. The silence on this aspect is deafening.

vas pupMay 6, 2014 10:22 AM

For Intel collection/security reason killing of Tsarnayev's friend by FBI is unprofessional (as you know in my postings I try to put moral issues aside). Taking that into consideration, my guess is that subject gave such personally offensive statement to FBI agent (still living human being regardless all management and media attempts to eradicate that)- not the Agency as the whole, not even as the US as a country, but to agent roots (e.g. agent's grandparents were exterminated during Holocaust, and subject told him that soon all those like him will be exterminated by Jihad as well). If Agent killed the bastard after that, I'd like to give him a handshake of approval even as any reasonable person do not want to be in any contact with Agency within several miles proximity distance away.
@Annoyed. As I see, the problem is not collection of big data, but processing with proper 'red flags' to point attention to. As in any business, including Intel/FBI it should be business analysts between big brains of NSA and LEAs which communicate to IT staff developing data analysis programs key ideas what is considered 'red flags'. That is the key. Currently as you can see there is no sufficient intellectual bridge between Intel collection and honing of timely and precise processing of big data for LEAs specific needs.

AnnoyedMay 6, 2014 5:04 PM

First, to clarify my earlier post:

[blockquote]
Why have the congressmen / women and media outlets who denounce bulk collection been more vocal?
[/blockquote]

should read:

[blockquote]
Why [b][i]haven't[/i][/b] the congressmen / women and media outlets who denounce bulk collection been more vocal?
[/blockquote]

@vas pup

The various agencies [i]do[/i] have analysts between "them" and the data, that's what Snowden was.

The fact is the Boston bombing showcases weaknesses in these programs that we're supposed to simply surrender data to yet nobody seems outraged enough to cover it on the 6 o'clock news.

IMO it seems like "oops, our tool doesn't work. Let's hope nobody notices".

AnnoyedMay 6, 2014 5:05 PM

GAH, Noscript prevents the HTML parser from properly submitting a post.

vas pupMay 9, 2014 10:23 AM

Just some links conforming points in my previous posting:@vas pup • May 6, 2014 10:22 AM.
http://www.big-dataforum.com/110/data-scientist-data-scientist-my-kingdom-data-scientist

http://www.big-dataforum.com/337/taming-unstructured-data-monster

And extract in particular:"But here’s the rub. To even begin to deliver on the promise of Big Data, every organization will first need to stock their IT staff with a very rare commodity, an IT professional that largely doesn’t even exist today. That would be specialists in predictive analytics or so-called advanced analytics. Without them, your Big Data will swamp you."

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