About the only thing that moved faster than the manhunt for Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was speculation about whether the FBI should have been able to stop them. Just days after the April 15 attack, House Intelligence Committee Chairman (and former FBI agent) Mike Rogers was on the Sunday talk show circuit, staunchly defending the bureau. "I don't think they missed anything....You can't ask them to do something with nothing," Rogers told "Meet the Press." Meanwhile, over at CNN, Senator Lindsey Graham was blaming the FBI for dropping the ball. "The charges and countercharges are stunning," said one FBI official. "The dust hasn't even settled. Let's find out what happened."
Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don't think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.
As Washington cranks into "what went wrong" mode, the temptation will be to focus on whether individuals made mistakes. Who investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and what, if anything, did the investigator miss? Did FBI officials ignore Russia's warnings when they shouldn't have? These kinds of questions are important, but they can also be misleading -- because the root causes of intelligence failures are often much harder to see. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 did not occur because someone somewhere dropped the ball. They happened because our entire intelligence apparatus didn't have the cultures, career incentives, or structures to get the ball even close to the right people.
These are still very early days in the Boston case. But it
is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is
really new enough. Transformation -- moving the bureau from a crime-fighting
organization to a domestic intelligence agency -- has been the FBI's watchword
since 9/11. And much has changed. Yes, the bureau has thwarted a number of
plots and gotten much better at handling its terrorism portfolio. Yes, the bureau
has tripled the number of intelligence analysts. And, yes, the FBI now
generates thousands of pages of intelligence reports each year.
But the silent killer of innovation in the FBI has always been culture -- specifically, a century-old law enforcement culture that glorifies catching perps on a street rather than connecting dots behind a desk, that prizes agents above intelligence analysts, and that views job number one as gathering evidence of a past or ongoing crime for a day in court instead of preventing the next attack. Culture can have serious real-world consequences, coloring how talented people in the FBI do their jobs and, perhaps more importantly, what they think their jobs actually are.
Case in point: What exactly does it mean to "investigate" a terrorist suspect like Tamerlan Tsarnaev before an attack transpires? Sounds straightforward. It isn't. The FBI has always been world-class at investigating a terrorist attack after the boom. Investigating before the boom is another matter.
In the FBI's traditional law enforcement view of the world, pre-boom terrorism investigations are supposed to hunt narrowly for evidence that someone has committed a terrorist offense or is in the midst of breaking the law right now. In the intelligence view of the world, these investigations are supposed to search widely for information that someone could be a terrorist next month, next year, or next decade -- or that they are somehow connected to others who might. These are two radically different perspectives. One focuses on the past and present, looking specifically for evidence to make or close a case. It's a snapshot. The other peers over the horizon, looking broadly for information to compile a moving picture. Law enforcement searches for closure. Intelligence searches for ground truth. This is not just a legal matter about what authorities the FBI can use when. It's a matter of what perspective an investigator takes, what questions are asked, how information is interpreted, what follow-up occurs, whether and how information gets synthesized and analyzed to see patterns before disaster strikes.