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Boston Response Praised, But Intelligence-Sharing Questioned

First responders aid injured people at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing on April 15.
Charles Krupa
First responders aid injured people at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing on April 15.

In the days since the Boston Marathon bombings, local law enforcement officials have been given high marks for their response to the attack and the coordination among numerous federal, state and local agencies involved.

But at the same time, questions are being raised about the coordination among federal agencies handling intelligence they had about the suspects in the months before the attack.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, there was nothing but praise for the actions of the responders. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island captured the tone of many lawmakers as he addressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: "I'm sure you saw with the same pride that I did the way people pulled together — the lack of 'turfiness' and the very impressive deployment of a wide range of local, state and federal capabilities very rapidly, very comprehensively and very smoothly."

That lack of "turfiness," as Whitehouse put it, was no accident. One of the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent disasters — natural and man-made — was the need for communication and cooperation among responders, says Carie Lemack, director of the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

"These were people who had gotten to know each other over the last decade because they had practiced before," she says. "Before 9/11, we hadn't seen that kind of coordination, so that when you had law enforcement agencies come together, oftentimes they couldn't communicate with each other. They had never met each other before. This was different in Boston."

Working Together

The Massachusetts National Guard was one of those agencies that played a big role in the bombing's aftermath. A Guard unit was at the finish line helping provide security when the blasts occurred and quickly began clearing debris and providing medical assistance.

Brig. Gen. Paul G. Smith says the Guard was well-trained for its role. "And that means putting your ego on hold and recognizing that we support elected officials, civil authorities, and we take our directions from them," he says.

Boston responders have also had recent practice working together, participating in mass-casualty drills and dealing with severe weather, ranging from tornadoes to blizzards. Smith says all of that experience was put to use after the bombings.

"We have worked very closely with city officials, local police departments, state police, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency," he says. "So there's a history. We know each other. And I think, most importantly, we trust each other."

Fears Of 'Stovepiping'

Still, if the lessons of how to respond to a terrorist attack seem to have been learned well, critics say law enforcement agencies still have a ways to go when it comes to sharing information that could help prevent an attack or at least help in identifying potential terrorists.

The criticism centers on the trip to Russia taken by bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed in a shootout with police Friday.

Tsarnaev traveled to an area of southern Russia near Chechnya in January 2012. Russia had requested a background check on Tsarnaev from the FBI before he left the United States. Napolitano told lawmakers on Monday that Homeland Security was aware that Tsarnaev left the country, but he returned to the U.S. some six months later, unnoticed.

"By the time he returned, all investigations had been — the matter had closed," she said.

After a closed-door briefing to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said intelligence agencies had reverted to their old pre-Sept. 11 ways, citing the practice of "stovepiping," or failing to share their information with each other.

"Post 9/11, we thought we had created a system that would allow for the free flow of information between agencies," he said. "I think there's been some stone walls and some stove pipes reconstructed that were probably unintentional, but we've got to review that issue again."

It's not clear what the FBI or anyone else might have done with more information about Tsarnaev. But it seems equally clear that he fell through the cracks before allegedly planting his bomb on Boylston Street last week.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.