False terror alert in Boston symptom of poor intelligence sharing, critics say

Around 9 a.m. on January 19, an agent from the FBI's Boston office was called out of a meeting that was planning for an upcoming local terrorism-response exercise.

When he returned to the meeting, according to one person familiar with the event, the agent described in "heavy detail" an uncorroborated threat report that had been working its way through local law enforcement channels: Two Iraqis and four Chinese chemists might be conspiring to launch some sort of nuclear attack on Boston.

It was an odd setting in which to share a rumor: 100 or so local officials, as well as health and transportation consultants from the private sector, were in the room.

"At that point, you're essentially briefing the public," said one senior Massachusetts official, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution from the FBI. "To maintain an expectation that the information is going to be kept quiet is absurd."

Earlier that morning, in response to a report sent from its San Diego office, the FBI had sent out a nationwide bulletin and alerted its Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. By noon, state and local offices were deluged with phone calls from reporters nationwide. By 4 p.m., the Boston Herald had published a story online. The next morning, the FBI bulletin was front-page news. After a few days of investigation, the FBI concluded that the report was false. In its wake, fingers are being pointed over whom to blame for unnecessarily scaring the public.

Several Massachusetts officials, pointing to a February 7 Washington Post story in which an unnamed FBI official criticized state and local representatives for leaks, have said in the past week that the federal government made them scapegoats. The local officials in turn put the blame on the FBI. Asked why the FBI agent briefed the group, FBI Boston office spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz said, "We would not typically talk about what goes on internally."

The incident illustrates a problem highlighted by the 2001 terrorist attacks: mangled lines of communication within government and with the public that could have spelled real danger. "The first step is to admit you have a problem," said one state homeland-security official. "We've been living in this fantasy world, saying information-sharing is better."

The root of the problem, says this state official, is that federal and state officials see information in ways that conflict. While the FBI is reluctant to share information because it could compromise an investigation, the local U.S. attorney might see the need to notify elected leaders, and state officials would want to notify people outside law enforcement and in the private sector.

Back at FBI headquarters, agents complain that they can't win. "It's become a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't type of thing when you're sharing information," said FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell. Additionally, the role of the Homeland Security Department remains unclear. Department officials believe they, not the FBI, should be the main conduit to state and local representatives regarding terrorist threats. "DHS could have presented it in a much better context," said one senior department official.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney acknowledged recently that federal-state communications fell apart. "There were so many failings all along the line that it's impossible to point the finger at any one place," Romney said last week at a regional security meeting. What was particularly mystifying to state officials was that clear channels of communication were set up last summer for the Democratic National Convention. So when federal officials deviated from those protocols, said several state officials, they added credence to the rumor.

For example, instead of routing the threat information through the normal channels -- the FBI's Counterterrorism Watch Center and the National Counterterrorism Center -- the FBI's San Diego office sent an "urgent" report to headquarters and to the Boston field office. And instead of routing the information though the regular protocol in Massachusetts, which allows aides in the Executive Office of Public Safety to develop an action plan, the Boston U.S. Attorney's Office called the governor's office directly. For these reasons, say state officials, they took the threat more seriously, and Romney decided to skip President Bush's inauguration in Washington and return home.

Meanwhile, state and local officials responsible for communicating with the public say they felt muzzled by the FBI, even after the threat was in the open. Suppressing information compounded panic rather than quelled it, because rumors inevitably filled the gap, said Katie Ford, press secretary for the Executive Office of Public Safety. "Even though the people on the ground in Boston knew there was a need to put information out there," Ford said, "we were essentially being told by Washington, 'Don't do it.' "

State officials will soon have a chance to vent to their federal counterparts and to rewire lines of communication. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan says he plans to convene his Anti-Terrorism Advisory Committee in the next week to dissect everyone's performance. "There are some things we learned from those experiences," he said. Declining to elaborate before the meeting, Sullivan said, "I certainly have some ideas along those lines."

Yet tangled communications persist: Marcinkiewicz of the Boston FBI said that her office had no plans to assess its response to last month's threat, and Massachusetts officials said at press time that they had yet to be told of such a meeting.

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