Boston attack show limits of post-9/11 security efforts

  • Article by: Greg Miller and Scott Wilson
  • Washington Post
  • April 20, 2013 - 6:43 PM


The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to a massive buildup of security to make the country safe. Subsequent plots, including attempts to conceal bombs in shoes and underwear, prompted hasty additions to that edifice, as officials sought to fill in cracks that terrorists might exploit.

The bombings in Boston are likely to yield a more frustrating security postmortem. So far, there have been no calls for a major addition to the nation’s counterterrorism infrastructure, in part because it is difficult to identify a measure that might have prevented the attacks.

Instead, U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts said that, while the bombings may lead to incremental changes in efforts to secure such events, they exposed the limits of the extraordinary defenses erected over the past 12 years.

The United States has spent billions of dollars on counterterrorism efforts during that span, an investment that has accomplished much of its aim. Overseas operations have pushed Al-Qaida to the brink of collapse, and domestic steps have dramatically reduced the country’s exposure to an attack of the scale and sophistication of Sept. 11.

But the Boston bombings highlighted a lingering vulnerability that officials consider impractical, if not impossible, to eliminate. It centers on small-scale plots carried out by individuals who are unlikely to surface on federal radar. They rely on devices made from common ingredients like gunpowder, nails and a pressure cooker. They target public gatherings where security resources are stretched.

“There’s just no way to secure many large public events, and the kind of intrusive steps we would have to take are ones that no one would be willing to endure,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a former federal prosecutor. “We’ve always known the limits of what we could do in a free society, and this week we saw those limits in all their horror.”

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies track thousands of potential threats each year to major public gatherings, ranging from the president’s inauguration to football’s Super Bowl. Those events are regarded as easier to safeguard because spectators must pass through checkpoints before gaining entry to a controlled space. The marathon, by contrast, is a snaking 26.2-mile course lined by open parks, sidewalks and buildings. Police conducted two bomb sweeps in advance of the race, but there was little to prevent two people from blending into the crowd with homemade devices in their backpacks.

“This is a type of target that is unrealistic to expect to be secured,” said Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and former CIA analyst. Protecting a single venue, Byman said, only means the list of remaining vulnerable sites is “infinity minus one.”

National security and civil rights analysts said the U.S. government’s response to the bombings will depend on details that emerge from the investigation, specifically whether the brothers accused of carrying out the attacks had direct connections to a foreign terrorist organization, were inspired by the ideology of radical Islam or had other motivations.

If officials were to discover connections to militant groups, the Obama administration could expand intelligence-gathering efforts overseas, as well as widen U.S. surveillance and screening measures. But such measures are far from foolproof. If, however, the suspects carried out the bombings with no foreign assistance, the administration’s policy options may be more limited.

Experts note that the United States has endured violence committed with the kind of relatively small-size explosive devices for decades, attacks carried out by radical groups with ideologies that span the political spectrum. It’s a “scenario in which you are almost powerless in a policy matter,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You obviously have to begin thinking about additional security at marathons and other events. But just as school shootings are really hard to prevent … I really don’t think there’s much more to do from a policy aspect.”

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