Editorial: FBI probe should focus on future, not fixing blame
We can’t help but wonder what Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were thinking about on April 12, three days before the Boston Marathon bombings they are accused of perpetrating, as FBI Director Robert Mueller rose many miles away to address an audience at the University of Virginia Law School. Terrorism was apparently on their minds; it was certainly on his.
“When I took office as director on Sept. 4, 2001, I had expected to focus on areas familiar to me as a prosecutor,” he said, according to an FBI transcript of his remarks. “Drug cases, white-collar criminal cases and violent crime.”
A week after he took office came Sept. 11 – and a new mission for the FBI. “National security – that is, preventing terrorist attacks – became our top priority.”
Now Mueller and the FBI are facing months of what the New York Times calls “tough questions” from lawmakers about whether the agency fumbled Job One. It turns out that agents had questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago, only to close the file without telling the Greater Boston police about him.
Given the carnage even the simplest of terrorist plots can produce, tough questions about how to do a better job of thwarting them are in order. But if the politicians who ask those questions focus on fixing blame rather than closing gaps – or suggest that anything short of preventing every act of terror indicates incompetence – that would be a disservice.
Mueller, who is 68, has a Concord connection: He graduated in the same St. Paul’s class (1962) as Secretary of State John Kerry. Like Kerry, he also saw combat in Vietnam. He earned his law degree at the University of Virginia, the setting for his April 12 speech, and went on to serve as U.S. attorney in San Francisco and Boston.
Mueller plans to retire as FBI director this fall, meaning his tenure will be remembered as beginning and ending with acts of terror. “It’s part of his legacy,” Lee Hamilton, the co-chairman of a commission that investigated 9/11, told the Times.
In between, according to the Times, Mueller achieved a great deal in refocusing the FBI on terrorism. He shifted 2,000 agents from chasing crooks to anti-terror efforts, dispatching some of them overseas and even into battle zones in search of information. Achieving this required significant cultural change, drawing what the Times described as “56 field offices, each fiercely protective of its turf” toward a new, shared mission.
Mueller also deserves credit for bounding this effort with a respect for the law and the constitutional rights all of us enjoy. According to the Times, Mueller’s opposition to the Bush administration’s aggressive electronic eavesdropping program ran so deep that he almost resigned over it.
Did the FBI err in losing sight of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? It certainly appears so, and with tragic results. But FBI agents have been charged with investigating, in the words of the Times account, even “the smallest terrorist tip” since 9/11. In the process, they have compiled lists of millions of names.
Is a perfect record possible? No.
Will the Marathon bombings point to needed changes? We suspect so.
Would that be a surprise? No, again.
“We as an organization must continually evolve,” Mueller told his law school audience, “. . . because terrorists and criminals certainly are evolving themselves.”