Homeland Security and Public Safety

Should the Boston Bombings Have Been Prevented?

Has the country been lucky or are homeland security officials and law enforcement getting good at preventing attacks?

Depending on the perspective, the Boston Marathon bombings showed either that the U.S. has been lucky that so few attacks have occurred since 9/11, or that homeland security and law enforcement officials have closed the gap when it comes to “connecting the dots.”

But even those who praise law enforcement and homeland security officials for making attacks difficult to carry out question whether the marathon could have been policed in a way that would have thwarted the attacks and if information sharing beforehand could have prevented the attacks.

Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said the response was excellent. “There was a little after-the-fact quibbling about this and that, but the Boston State Police, the FBI and ATF worked remarkably well together,” Greenberger said. “That didn’t just happen; that’s been something that joint terrorism forces and fusion centers have been working at for many years now.”

But Greenberger wondered aloud why there weren’t checkpoints along the route and CCTV cameras monitoring the crowd. “People [say], ‘Well, a marathon is 26.2 miles long and you can’t do that.’ My view is that that thesis has been torn up.

“I’m looking out my window and can see M&T Stadium where the [Baltimore] Ravens play and I can see Camden Yards [the Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark]. We’ve worked with them and the NFL on security, and you can’t go to either place and not have your bags checked.”

Greenberger also cited the last two presidential inaugurations, where he was embedded, and a rally held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Oct. 30, 2010, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as events where bags were checked.

Greenberger called the Boston bombers’ backpacks “enormous.” “If those guys had had to go through [bag check points] they would never have gotten close. I think there are going to be lots of checkpoints from now on at marathons, certainly at the most sensitive areas like the start and finish or any place where crowds tend to gather. And there will be temporary CCTV, which will be monitored all the time.”

So far, the evidence points to the two bombing assailants as lone wolves until information proves otherwise, Greenberger said. Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former senior official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, believes it’s too early to say. “I don’t think we know the full extent of any contacts or relations they might have had with other individuals.”

Mayer also felt that there may have been a way to thwart the attacks. “How about the FBI sharing with local law enforcement that they had somebody who they had interviewed?”

Mayer cited the investigation into the triple murder, in which one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has been implicated, and if that suspect had been linked to the murder would it have prevented the bombings?

“If Boston law enforcement had known about [the FBI’s knowledge of Tsarnaev] when the triple murder occurred and this guy was in the sphere of that world, would that have been enough reasonable cause to get some type of surveillance or other actions on him?”

Mayer said that if all the information — the inquiry by the Russians, the murder, the trip to Russia — been added it might have been enough for officials to keep an eye on Tsarnaev. “Could we have prevented this from happening in the first place if there had essentially been a small sharing of intel or interaction between the FBI?” Mayer asked.

Greenberger wouldn’t go that far. “Maybe the FBI had some intel. But the Russians have this heightened suspicion of Chechens,” he said. “The Russians would identify anybody.”

Mayer and Greenberger both expressed surprise that more events like the Boston bombings haven’t happened since 9/11. “It’s amazing they haven’t done it more,” Greenberger said.

Has the country been lucky or are homeland security officials and law enforcement getting good at preventing attacks?

“A little of both,” Greenberger said. Mayer said, “If you’re going to have freedom be of paramount value to a country then, yes, you’re going to have these types of incidents that are hard to stop.”

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.