We have the measure of the tragedy in Boston, the tally of dead and injured, those who have lost limbs, those who remain in critical condition, the incalculable grief and sorrow Americans share.
But what will be the long-term consequences of this attack? Much will depend on who is found to be responsible, how soon, and whether further terrorist attacks occur before investigators can close the books on this one. Will intelligence agencies take the blame for failing to uncover a bomber in our midst? Will the bombing lead to the imposition of new security measures, not just at marathons or other major sporting events, but at all mass gatherings—more perimeters, more check points, more onerous searches? Will a frightened public embrace further curtailments of liberty in the name of security? Will the bloodshed in Boston, where 238 years ago citizen soldiers fired the first shots of a revolution, foster new attitudes about the role of today’s citizens in their own defense?
Will the Boston bombing be viewed as an intelligence failure?
Intelligence has significantly improved since 9/11. At the international level, the United States has mounted a massive intelligence effort to attack al-Qaida’s global terrorist enterprise with unprecedented cooperation from the world’s intelligence services and law enforcement organizations. Domestically, the FBI has carried out a remarkable transformation of its institutional culture to become an effective domestic intelligence agency, assisted at the local level by the intelligence efforts of police departments. As a result, the FBI and local authorities have foiled most of the terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11.
Domestic intelligence collection is always a delicate business in a democracy. Opponents have attacked these programs on the grounds that they discriminate against specific communities and threaten civil liberties. In the immediate shadow of 9/11, these complaints found little support, but as people have come to feel safer, critics of domestic intelligence gathering have launched new offensives.
No one seriously believes that intelligence efforts can detect every terrorist plot. The majority of the terrorist plots uncovered since 9/11 have involved a single individual. Few of them had any prior connections with terrorism. Many plots were uncovered through sting operations, but this kind of detection is unlikely when individuals carry out plots without the help of others. We have no X-ray for a man’s soul.
Intelligence did not prevent the attack in Boston. This intelligence “failure” will be reviewed to see what was missed. Analysts live in dread of the “unattended dot” that should have been connected but was not.
Will the Boston bombing lead to permanent increases in security?
Security nationwide has already gone up a notch, as can be expected in the immediate wake of any major terrorist event. This is driven in part by fears that the attack is the beginning of a wave of attacks, a reality that must be accepted particularly while those responsible remain at large.
The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was followed by a second conspiracy to continue the terrorist campaign. Eric Rudolph, the man responsible for the 1996 bombing during the Olympics in Atlanta, carried out further bombings before he was apprehended. When the Times Square bomber was prompted to flee, he already had other targets in mind.
Terrorist attacks, especially if successful, can invite imitation, making it risky to sidestep the instinct to tighten security. Even discounting the possibility of copycat attacks, major terrorist events still invariably inspire increased threats and reports of suspicious objects and unusual behavior in the short term. Authorities must prepare for these.
Attempted terrorist attacks on airliners have prompted swift and permanent increases in security. The Shoe Bomber’s attempt to bring down an airliner in 2001 led to requirements to remove shoes at security checkpoints. The discovery in 2006 of a plot to bring down commercial airliners with liquid explosives promptly led to restrictions on liquids. The Underwear Bomber’s failed attempt to blow up an airliner in 2009 prompted the deployment of full body scanners. But in these cases, there was a security regime already in place—a security checkpoint where new procedures could easily be added and new technology deployed.
Protecting public spaces is much more difficult. Keeping terrorists from taking over or blowing up commercial airliners offers a net security benefit, but these results cannot easily be duplicated at other targets. If denied access to one public space, a determined terrorist need only choose from limitless alternative locations where roughly the same results can be achieved.