In wake of Boston bombings, experts say security can never be perfect

McClatchy NewspapersApril 16, 2013 

— Americans who’ve grown accustomed to rigorous security procedures since the 9/11 attacks may have to endure new measures following the Boston Marathon bombings, but experts on Tuesday warned that no amount of extra precautions can guarantee absolute safety from a determined terrorist.

“There is no way that people who run in marathons or people who go to baseball stadiums can be assured that they will be protected from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) 100 percent of the time,” said Dennis Pluchinsky, a former senior State Department terrorism analyst. “Terrorists will always find some holes, some gap (in security) to take advantage of.”

As federal, state and local investigators scrambled to track down the culprits the day after two explosives-packed pressure cookers killed three people and injured more than 170 others, President Barack Obama sought anew to reassure the country that whoever was responsible would be found.

“Clearly, we’re at the beginning of our investigation. It will take time to follow every lead and determine what happened, but we will find out. We will find whoever harmed our citizens, and we will bring them to justice,” said Obama, who for the first time referred to the bombings as “an act of terror.”

The bombings were the first mass-casualty terrorist attack to take place in the United States since Feb. 18, 2010, when an anti-tax protester flew his small plane into the Internal Revenue Service office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and one other person and wounding 15 people.

Experts noted that improved counter-terrorism efforts overseas, security measures and intelligence sharing between federal, state and local authorities and with other countries have succeeded in thwarting major and minor attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

“Literally dozens of plots have been disrupted and prevented since 9/11,” said Christian Beckner, deputy director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. “For the most part, we’ve been extremely successful in preventing plots and making it much more difficult for al Qaida ... to conduct attacks inside the United States.”

Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., a California-based policy institute, pointed to what he said was “an extraordinary improvement since 9/11 in intelligence internationally and domestically. At the international level, the unanimity of focus and degree of cooperation among the intelligence services and law enforcement organizations worldwide is unprecedented."

At least 37 of the more than 40 suspected al Qaida-related plots since Sept. 11, 2001, have been thwarted "as a consequence of bits of information from different foreign intelligence sources being assembled and passed along,” Jenkins said. “And it ends up with a plot being thwarted in Europe or the United States. That is a remarkable change."

The last attack linked to al Qaida took place on Nov. 6, 2009. U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist who was exchanging messages with a cleric of al Qaida’s branch in Yemen, is awaiting trial on charges of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others in a shooting rampage at a medical facility at Fort Hood, Texas.

Some U.S. officials and independent experts expressed doubts that al Qaida was directly involved in the Boston bombings, although whoever was responsible may have been incited by jihadist propaganda. The terrorist network’s attacks traditionally have been more devastating and have been followed by claims of responsibility, they said.

“It will surprise me if this is not domestic terrorism,” said Michael Greenberger, a former senior Justice Department official. “It would also surprise me if this is al Qaida. But it can’t be taken off the table.”

FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Richard DesLauriers told a Tuesday evening news conference in Boston that the list of suspects remained “wide open.”

The Department of Homeland Security had not posted a terrorism threat advisory as of Tuesday evening under a new warning system that dispensed with color codes. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement said, “There is no current indication to suggest that the events in Boston are indicative of a broader plot.”

Nevertheless, she said that the department would maintain undisclosed “enhanced security measures at transportation hubs.”

Security was boosted in cities, railway stations and airports across the nation after the bombings, and it was unclear how long they’d remain in effect.

"We always have a robust security program," said Richard Zolt, head of security for MetroLink, the St. Louis, Mo., light rail system. "We use layered security and are always looking for any sort of suspicious behavior. We can’t really get into details because we don’t want the people who might try something to know what to look out for. But our passengers are our number one priority, and we take their security very, very seriously."

In Sacramento, Calif., the home of the Dec. 8 California International Marathon, the race’s director said he was considering boosting security around the finish line, especially around the "kiss and cry" reunion zone where runners meet friends and family after completing the race.

Security at the race’s finish line traditionally has been tight, said John Mansoor. But in the future, finishers could be channeled into a fenced-off area to which friends and family would be admitted only after passing through metal detectors.

"It is somewhat ironic that this occurred at the finish line because that is the most secure location for events," Mansoor said. "It can be made even more secure if necessary. We can lock that down pretty tight."

The Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run in Miami on April 25 will go on as scheduled, with added security, said race director Hans Huseby.

Experts cautioned that absolute security can’t be assured at major public events.

"These are soft targets and they’re very, very difficult to defend against," said Jack Tomarchio, a former principal deputy for intelligence and analysis for the Department of Homeland Security. "I think what happened yesterday is going to be somewhat of a game changer. In the last couple of years, the idea of homeland security has become kind of blasé.”

Pluchinsky, the former State Department terrorism analyst, said that it is normal for authorities around the country and the world to increase security after a terrorist attack out of a concern that it could be part of a larger plot. But that has seldom been the case, and taking additional precautions actually rewards whoever pulled off the attack, he said.

“The terrorist gets a measure of success and victory,” he explained. “I’m sure there will be increased security, and maybe at baseball games and basketball games they will take a second look. But I think they’ve already had pretty good security, and I’m not sure there is very much extra they can do.”

Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald, Bill Lindelof of The Sacramento Bee and Scott Wuerz of The Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat contributed to this article.

Email: jlanday@mcclatchydc.com, mtaylor@mcclatchydc.com, ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @JonathanLanday, @greggordon2

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