The quick identification of likely perpetrators in the Boston Marathon bombing highlights how far federal, state and local authorities have come since 9-11 in preparing to cope with terrorist attacks. Less than a hundred hours after homemade bombs went off near the marathon’s finish line, authorities had narrowed the search for suspects to two brothers from Chechnya. The circumstances surrounding the death of one of them — he was shot while in possession of explosives — strongly suggests that police were on the trail of the right people.
Some observers may argue that the two brothers were amateurs who made obvious mis-steps leading to their capture, but anyone who followed coverage of the investigation during the period leading up to Thursday night’s shootout knows there was a vast forensics operation under way. The FBI and other investigators had figured out how the bombs were made and had pictures of the two young men who probably placed them. Their attempt to rob a convenience store undoubtedly was driven in part by the desperation that criminals feel when they know authorities are closing in on them.
Which brings me to two points. First, the law-enforcement skills deployed in the Boston case took a long time and a lot of investment to acquire. It would really be outrageous if U.S. counter-terror skills were undermined by the idiotic sequestration provisions contained in the Budget Control Act passed by Congress in 2011. Supporters of sequestration say it is necessary to rein in wasteful spending, but squandering a dozen years of investment in world-class counter-terror skills without tackling entitlement programs would be the epitome of federal incompetence.
A second point has to do with the technology used to zero in on the two suspects. That technology facilitated a careful sifting and cross-referencing of evidence with data bases that could not have been achieved so expeditiously before the advent of digital networks. But how often did you hear during this week’s coverage about how authorities were being “deluged” with information? As collection systems have multiplied since 9-11, the problem of being overwhelmed by data has become commonplace for both the military and for law enforcement.
That is one reason why the Air Force’s top intelligence and reconnaissance priority is not replacing Cold War sensor aircraft, but acquiring a better network to handle all the information it is collecting. Both at home and abroad, the flow of potentially vital information available to security personnel is outstripping their capacity to quickly analyze and disseminate it. We can’t count on lucky breaks to help us sort out the data, and 9-11 illustrates what can happen when officials fail to connect the dots in intelligence. So as the government struggles to control spending, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are some missions that matter more than holding the line on taxes.
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