Boston Attack Lessons Focus on Information Sharing Gaps
By: Dan Verton
07/10/2013 ( 1:00pm)
The Boston police commissioner told federal lawmakers today that the regulations governing information sharing between federal Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) and local police departments need to be changed to force federal authorities to share threat information in a more timely manner.
"If there is information that comes in about a terrorist threat to a particular city, the local officials should have that information," said Edward F. Davis III, during testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "There should be a mandate somewhere that the federal authorities have to share that with us so that we can properly defend our community. There should be a full and equal partnership where everybody is sharing equally."
The Boston Police Department has four officers assigned to the FBI-led JTTF in the Boston area, yet Davis said his department was not aware of the information the FBI received in 2011 from Russian authorities that warned of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's radical Islamic beliefs and alleged attempts to join a militant group in Chechnya. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed on April 19 during a gunfight with Boston police. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, 19, made his first appearance in federal court today on terrorism charges.
JTTFs are located in 103 cities across the nation, including at least one in every FBI field office. They are staffed by a multitude of federal, state and local agencies and are designed to enhance information sharing across organizational boundaries. The participation of each federal, state and local agency in the JTTF is governed by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that spells out the policies and procedures for interagency collaboration and information sharing.
But according to Davis, the current MOU model does not support rapid information flow down to the local police departments that are on the frontlines when it comes to identifying and locating terrorists in their communities.
"There's limited access to federal systems and that's where the rub is," said Davis. "Names can fall through the cracks the way it's setup. If information is compartmentalized and kept away from the Boston regional intelligence center ... that puts my officers at risk."
"The bottom line is that a local police officer is most likely to encounter that individual first as opposed to an FBI agent, because you're on the ground, on the streets every day," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). "If that information is not flowing down fully to state and local [agencies] in the way it needs to then we do need to address that and make sure we get to the bottom of it. We can't have local police officers on the streets encountering people like Tsarnaev and not have the background."
Davis said based on his conversations with other police commissioners, including New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, it might be time to increase the number of officers assigned to the JTTF. "That might help the communications issues," Davis said.
Davis also recommended to lawmakers that JTTF cases involving specific threats to cities and localities be briefed in a joint environment that includes local law enforcement. "The information that comes in from the street can be extremely helpful to ongoing JTTF investigations," he said.
To fix this remaining gap in timely information sharing, David recommended a simple rule that would require federal officials to include local law enforcement in any investigations that involve threats to local communities. "Even if the case is closed out, we should know what the allegation was," Davis said. "And at this point in time, that is not happening."
[Editor's note: Homeland Security Today has repeatedly reported that counterterrorism intelligence authorities have stressed that most terror plot dot-connecting is local. Homeland Security Security Janet Napolitano has emphasized the importance that state and local law enforcement plays in spotting terrorist activity]