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Don’t Let the Orlando Discussion Shift Away from the Government’s Failure

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

Don’t Let the Orlando Discussion Shift Away from the Government’s Failure

This is the most important aspect, and the one most likely to be under-discussed, in the aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack:

The glaring, red-siren revelation in recent terror attacks on American soil is that the perpetrators were so often briefly investigated by American authorities on suspicion of terrorist ties, and then cleared.

The FBI interviewed Omar Mateen three times in 2013 and 2014, and he had been on a terrorism watch list during that time. He was subsequently removed. The FBI interviewed Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik passed the Department of Homeland Security’s counterterrorism screening during her visa-application process. Among the aspiring jihadists who opened fire at a Garland, Texas, “Draw Muhammad” contest was Elton Simpson, whom the FBI investigated for allegedly planning to join a terror group in 2010; he was sentenced to three years of probation for lying to investigators. The FBI never talked to the Chattanooga shooter, but his father had been on a terrorism watch list for suspicious overseas donations; he was subsequently cleared and removed from the list.

Is it that the caseload simply doesn’t allow the time for a thorough investigation or periodic reexamination of past persons of interest? In October, FBI Director James Comey said the Bureau had an estimated 900 active investigations pending against suspected Islamic State-inspired operatives and other home-grown violent extremists across the country.

Thankfully, while some reporters the question whether the real lesson is about tortured denial of sexual preference or whether to ban a gun the terrorist didn’t use, a few voices are asking why terrorist attacks keep occurring on American soil, launched by figures who were already on the radar of federal agents:

David Gomez, a former senior FBI counterterrorism official in Seattle, wrote in an online posting titled “How Did The FBI Miss Omar Mateen?” that “perhaps it is time to revisit” the basic legal standard that the FBI requires probable cause of a likely crime to open full-scale investigations.

And James McJunkin, who once headed the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said that if agents didn’t dig deep enough in Orlando, it was probably because they were hampered by FBI guidelines. He said in preliminary investigations, for instance, there is a cap on the number of hours agents can conduct surveillance.

“Those are rules or guidelines that were written by lawyers who don’t have the responsibility or accountability for doing thorough investigations,’’ McJunkin said. The agents probing Mateen, he added, “ran out of leads based upon the tools that they applied. But if they had more tools, would they have found more leads?’’

Experts who study terrorism said that the bureau might require more agents and analysts to fight a metastasizing terror threat in which potential recruits are flooded with information online. FBI officials have said they have nearly 1,000 open investigations involving the Islamic State in all 50 states.

Step back for a second: if you have “nearly 1,000 open investigations involving the Islamic State in all 50 states” then it means ISIS isn’t “contained,” as President Obama asserted in November. That comment referred to the portion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but if ISIS is growing and becoming more capable of launching deadly attacks more frequently in the Western cities, that almost makes the fight in the Middle East moot. The administration’s message on ISIS has been consistent: We’re containing them. We’re making progress. They’re not an existential threat. Don’t worry. We’ve got this.

It’s hard to buy the idea that this is merely a funding or manpower issue; as I noted yesterday, the federal government has enormous resources devoted to counterterrorism: “A 2011 Washington Post report calculated that “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States” and “51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.”

The vast majority of the people working in that giant security apparatus are dedicated, hardworking, intelligent and thorough. But something in their investigative process is generating false negatives: individuals who are indeed a threat are being scrutinized and assessed as non-threats, and Americans are dying as a consequence.

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