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Boston Marathon Attacks Push the Limits of Post-9/11 Reforms

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With Tuesday's announcement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that an official inquiry would be made into the handling of information prior to the Patriots Day bombings in Boston, we will learn a great deal about the U.S. government's intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities. However, it is highly unlikely that we will find a "smoking gun," or some singular piece of evidence that could have alerted officials to the Tsarnaev brothers' plans and averted the attack. Instead, despite major reforms implemented over the past decade, we will find that stubborn obstacles to effective information-sharing remain. What we have already learned about the Boston bombing underscores the unfortunate fact that the two most difficult problems are essentially beyond the reach of the federal government: cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, and effective working relationships with state and local law enforcement agencies.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, major governmental reform efforts logically focused on the key tasks of intelligence gathering, analysis of data, and information-sharing across and among key federal agencies. The last task received special emphasis. The portrayal of events in the years leading up to the attacks, contained in The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, paints a picture of governmental actors in the Clinton and Bush administrations struggling to understand and address the new and growing threat of al Qaeda with outdated tools and capabilities constructed to combat the Soviet Union.

Rather than a straightforward lack of useful information, the report repeatedly shows how the inability to get the right information to the right people at the right time can have disastrous consequences. It was flawed information management -- specifically the inability of different organizations to effectively share critical intelligence -- that was at the root of the perceived failure to avert the September 11 attacks. In reality, it may not have been possible to stop the attacks. But with hindsight, the Report makes a strong case that information was available to hinder or -- at the very least -- disrupt the operation, had key actors been provided with the requisite information.

Post-9/11 reforms specifically targeted institutional barriers to information-sharing and attempted to develop capabilities to analyze and coordinate flows of intelligence efficiently and effectively, while also maintaining necessary secrecy and privacy standards. One key thrust of reforms sought to break down the so-called "wall" between (foreign) intelligence and domestic law enforcement, whether within the FBI or between organizations like the CIA and other national intelligence agencies and the FBI and domestically-focused security organizations. The institutional and bureaucratic division between what is "foreign" and "domestic" was clearly a major cause of concern for the United States in a new era of global or transnational terrorism.

Today, it seems those barriers have been overcome. However two critical challenges remain. Cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies and effective working relationships with state and local law enforcement remain uneven at best. In considering the Boston case, various reports have highlighted Tamerlan Tsarnaev's six-month trip to Russia in January 2012 with the implication that federal authorities should have responded more energetically to such a seeming "red flag." However, crucial background information from Russia needed to expand federal investigations was not forthcoming. At the same time, key local intelligence items, like Tamerlan's outbursts at his local mosque in Cambridge could have triggered scrutiny if that information was shared with federal authorities.

The United States is undoubtedly safer a decade after the 9/11 attacks, but as the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism emerges as a real concern, we must continue to improve intelligence and information-sharing capabilities. We have made great strides in breaking down the divisions between intelligence and law enforcement at the federal level. Now it is time to address cooperation between Washington agencies and their foreign counterparts, and greater coordination between federal, state and local authorities.