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Could We Have Caught the Boston Bombers Earlier?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Twelve years after September 11, our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies still haven't fixed the data-sharing problems that make us vulnerable to more attacks. It's difficult to reach any other conclusion after unnamed counterterrorism officials at the CIA this week revealed that Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev remained in their system as a person with possible ties to terrorism, while the FBI had closed its investigation into the man.

If this information had been shared between the agencies and the FBI had continued to monitor his activities, could the bombing have been prevented? That is a question no one can answer definitively. It may be that our laws still would not have given the FBI sufficient authority to track him. And the sheer number of individuals whose profiles suggest they pose similar risks may simply overwhelm our ability to keep a close eye on all of them.

But one thing does seem clear: Government authorities should have been able to identify him as a suspect almost immediately after the bombing. If they had done so, it would have saved MIT police officer Sean Collier's life, prevented injuries to other police officers who pursued the brothers, and perhaps saved millions of dollars in shutting down major sections of Boston and surrounding communities and the police efforts required to apprehend the suspects.

Since the FBI was involved in the investigation into the bombing from the beginning, why didn't they search their database for individuals who had been investigated for potential ties to terrorism over the past several years? Surely Tsarnaev's name would have turned up. And if not, why not?

If his name had come up, wouldn't the FBI or other law enforcement figures have gone out to interview him immediately after the bombing? We know from the secretary of homeland security that his departure for Russia was noted in the department's counterterrorism database. Surely investigators who knew that he'd recently visited the Russian province of Dagestan, a hotbed of Muslim extremism, should have quickly put him on a list of possible suspects. If the information available to the CIA and homeland security were available to all federal counterterrorism agencies, it should have triggered alarms as soon as the bombing occurred.


If this act of terrorism had been an ordinary crime -- say the abduction of a child -- law enforcement immediately would have combed their records for the presence of individuals in the surrounding community who raised suspicion based on previous crimes, or who had been the subject of investigations for unsolved crimes. So why did the feds not turn up Tsarnaev's name? After all, a foreign government had alerted U.S. authorities that he was a person who might be involved in terrorist planning or activities.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and there is a tendency to think we should be able to prevent bad things from happening. But as former President George W. Bush said, in order to do so, we have to be right 100 percent of the time, and the bad guys only need to be right once. We have uncovered similar plots, and it may be that we will never be right every time, especially since we need to balance protecting our civil liberties and privacy rights with being able to prevent terrorism. None of us wants to live in a police state that monitors everyone's move.

But that doesn't mean we can't do better. We may not be able to prevent every single act of terrorism, but we should be able to quickly apprehend those involved when their names are already on our watch lists. Thankfully, Tsarnaev and his younger brother were stopped before they could finish the job they started -- which included bombing Times Square, as investigators learned Thursday.


We won't get better at preventing such terrorist acts, however, until all counterterrorism information is shared between agencies. Congress should investigate why this isn't happening. If the reason is that the agencies lack the legal authority to do so, Congress should change the laws. But even before that happens, the FBI should launch its own investigation into why officials in their Boston office didn't quickly discover Tsarnaev's name in their own files and act on it immediately after the bombing.

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