The twin bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line spurred some questions over what could be done to better prevent terror attacks at high-profile events, but two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders said the U.S. government does not need to reassess its current policies.
"The policies in place are adequate," one Insider said. "Perfection is simply impossible, and an attack of this sort was, unfortunately, inevitable. A review of the preparations for the specific event is appropriate but a broader rethink is not really necessary." If security is "overdone," another added, "it will destroy the open events."
Several Insiders said there was not much the federal government could have done to prevent the attack that killed three people and wounded more than 170 others last Monday, allegedly perpetrated by two brothers of Chechen descent, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
"It's always useful to reassess, but events like a marathon are nearly impossible to secure. We cannot make ourselves invulnerable except at a price to our society we should not be willing to pay," one Insider said. Short of implementing a complete police state, another Insider added, "I am not aware of additional prudent steps that could have been taken to increase police presence or efforts."
The U.S. already devotes substantial resources to address potential threats at designated national security events, such as the Super Bowl, one Insider said. "Security for local marathons, even those as prominent as Boston and N.Y.C., should be led by local and state authorities," the Insider said. "Events of comparable scale, major professional and collegiate sporting events, number in the thousands. Leading security for all of them would cost the federal government in the tens of billions of dollars annually, far more than the nation's taxpayers would abide."
One-third of Insiders disagreed. "While we cannot protect everything, it seems that after having spent nearly a half-trillion [dollars] on homeland security over 12 years, we still seem to have many gaps. It is time to take a fresh look at what we are doing and why," one Insider said. Another added: "The threat is not over, much as everyone wishes it was."
Separately, 60 percent of Insiders are now open to U.S. military action to help Syria's rebels in their fight against embattled President Bashar al-Assad, either in the near term or down the line. While U.S. assistance has so far focused on providing nonlethal assistance, a 35 percent faction said the U.S. should take military action soon. "We should have started arming and training months ago," one Insider said.
The combining of energies of the al-Nusra front and al-Qaida, and the growing roles of Iran and Hezbollah, have changed the threat picture, another Insider said. "The U.S. and its European allies should impose a no-flight zone in Syria, and provide upgraded arms to vetted fighting organizations," the Insider said. "At the same time, the West needs to start marshaling resources for a massive humanitarian and civil-assistance mission. Otherwise, terrorist organizations and Iran may end up controlling parts of Syria, such as the Alawite region, after Assad falls."
A 25 percent faction believes the U.S. should take military action eventually. "The most important issue is to prevent al-Qaida from creating a safe haven in Syria. We cannot do that unless we are in the arena," one Insider said.
But 40 percent of Insiders insist the U.S. should not get involved militarily. "No good can come to U.S. interests from involvement in a sectarian civil war with extremism represented on both sides and in which any outside military intervention further fans the flames," one Insider said.
Others said Washington should not get into the bloody fight — which would "only inflame an already embittered Arab world" — but should arm the rebels. "There is an urgent need to arm the moderate rebels; otherwise, either Assad remains in power or the Sunni extremists take over. And both outcomes are disastrous for the U.S. and the West in general."
Some Insiders said it was simply too late for military action. The U.S., one Insider said, "should work to secure chemical weapons and sophisticated arms."
1. After the Boston bombings, does the U.S. government need to reassess its policies to prevent terror attacks in high-profile events?
- No 67%
- Yes 33%
"Although the loss of life was tragic in Boston, the fact that we haven't had a major terrorist event since 9/11 shows that the U.S. government's efforts to prevent terrorist incidents have been largely successful. But we cannot become complacent, and the Boston tragedy shows that we need to be ever-vigilant."
"It's too early to tell for sure, but what's the evidence that the federal government could have done anything? Ban pressure cookers?"
"Security can never be perfect; it should continue to be important. A tragedy like this does not say we failed."
"Haven't we changed America just about enough? To reach that elusive zero risk level, we'd have to go to national lockdown."
"Unless it's discovered that there was info the intel community possessed (but didn't know its significance) prior to the attack, there's nothing the U.S. government could or should have done on marathon security."
"Not yet, anyway. Once more is known about the attack we'll have a clearer idea whether the federal government could have prevented it. But obviously the federal government will never be able to stop every act of random violence in the country; time will tell whether this incident was more than that."
"Of course, reassessment is always good. But if the question implies that the Boston bombings reflect an avoidable failure, then I disagree."
"It was not a question of if but when the next terrorist attack would happen in the U.S. What does need to be done is socialize the new generation (13-25 year olds) who don't remember 9/11/01 like we do and to be as vigilant as possible. 'See something, say something' sadly was not practiced at Boston Marathon on Monday."
"The policies are sound; execution needs refinement. It's easier to check backpacks, etc., in a stadium or arena than on the street, but security remains within reach if proper procedures are followed."
"Exactly which policies would be reassessed? There is no way to 'prevent' terrorist attacks on what is inherently open and public — and thus, inherently vulnerable."
"Policies, no — money, yes. [Georgia Republican] Rep. [Jack] Kingston suggested no National Guard at the Boston Marathon due to the money crunch. FBI agents who are involved in the investigation could be furloughed. N.Y.C. proved that situtation can be made safer with more resources smartly deployed. Sequestration is harmful to these efforts."
"You always need to stay ahead of the terrorist, and this requires constant reviews and new assessments. To not change will lead to eventual disaster."
"Of course, a reassessment is appropriate even if it is only harvesting lessons learned. But we should not go spasmodic, turn a tragic tactical defeat for us into a strategic success for our enemy, or punitively dismantle the very structures that are protecting us."
"But this answer doesn't imply that federal, state, and local authorities didn't do everything they could to protect the public at the Boston Marathon."
"There have been significant leaps forward in technology related to high performance computing, data storage (cloud), and analysis that allows the ingest of structured and unstructured data, video, and other data since 9/11. There has been lamentable progress in breaking down stovepipes in the law-enforcement community to aggregate this data and exploit it quickly. Any policy review must focus on the use of this technology to baseline pre-event status and conditions that raise the risk of detection and increase the effectiveness of a response."
"The system works quite well, but it is always useful to do reassesments to plug any leaks. It's just common sense."
"Clearly it must. In particular, while [the Homeland Security Department] has certainly helped minimize the impact of such incidents, it is still an unwieldy and inefficient agency."
"The Central Intelligence Agency should be permitted to collect intelligence as it used to do before 2009 to prevent terror attacks inspired by foreign entities or U.S. residents influenced by [them]."
"Always good to reassess after an incident in order to evaluate effectiveness of procedures and policies."
"After major events, the tendency is to throw money and resources at the responsible bureaucracies as political balm, the last thing required now. Rather this would be a good time, a decade after an unprecedented buildup, to do a top-to-bottom evaluation of all U.S. counterterrorism efforts, policies, and agencies. Waste, inefficiencies, duplicative efforts are all there and ought to be addressed."
2. Should the U.S. start to take military action to help Syria's rebels?
- No, never 40%
- Yes, and soon 35%
- Yes, eventually 25%
"Is there anyone in government clever enough to pull that off? I think not."
"Does arming the rebels count? Indirect intervention is good, but direct is not."
"Never say never. A game-changing event related to Israel or Iran could cause this to be revisited."
"We should identify a group to our liking and support them to make sure the guys that eventually come out on top are our guys. But, stay out of direct military involvement in the war."
"Sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don't."
"Give them the tools and training to do it themselves. There is no U.S. interest involved and nothing good can come direct U.S. military help."
"Never is a strong word, but the Syrian civil war is a hornets' nest, and we should leave it alone."
Yes, and soon
"The time is here; they need the extra lift."
"Intervention by ground forces should be ruled out, but it's long overdue for us to implement a no-fly zone with friendly governments in Europe and the Middle East, just as we did in Libya."
"But this need not look like Iraq. Creating a safe haven along the Turkish border could allow the opposition to coalesce and would put significantly more pressure on the Assad regime."
"Yes, establishing a no-fly zone as part of a coalition would help save lives."
"We may be too late to take credible action in Syria, but we need to be able to shape events, not just react to them. Military action should be an option we use to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict."
"U.S. Army Special Forces were created for this purpose. They should have been put into the fight a year ago."
"At least keep it as an option."
"It's still too hard to tell who we should be helping and to what extent. It may be getting harder. The potential for negative second-order consequences still mitigate against rushing in just to satisfy domestic critics."
"Unless the balance of forces on the ground shifts decisively, the war will drag on, and drag in the neighborhood, in ways that will eventually compel direct US involvement."
"I would already argue that we are there. Or what appears to be some form of covert action training and weapons seem to be supplied. This is just another form of sending our military in. There will never be troops on the ground this one. The public has no tolerance for that after 10 years of war."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the April 23, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.