US security debate hinges on FBI probe of Boston Marathon attack

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are awaiting answers as they consider how — or whether — to attempt improvements of the national security apparatus following Monday’s deadly twin bombings at the Boston marathon.

Nearly a decade ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress went into overdrive, giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies more authority with the Patriot Act and creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).

Those steps have been ripped by some on both the left and the right for increasing the government’s secret powers, as well as its size. But the new post-9/11 laws have also attracted bipartisan praise for helping to capture and/or kill terrorists before they could inflict harm on the United States. 

The Boston bombings have left many questions unanswered thus far, most notably: Who did it, and why?

Federal and local authorities are working to determine who might be behind the heinous, unclaimed attacks that killed three people and injured more than 170, caused by two explosions near the marathon’s finish line.

But without that information, key lawmakers tell The Hill it is impossible to determine if federal law enforcement, intelligence or defense agencies need to be altered.

“It’s incredibly difficult when you have such a large scene, so many victims, you have two different locations where you had devices detonated, you have to have ATF [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] come in and tell you what those devices were, reconstruct, so you can figure out what kind of an actor do you have,” Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.), a 38-year veteran of law enforcement, told The Hill.

“You don’t want to get ahead of yourself on this stuff, and everybody wants to but they really shouldn’t,” the House Armed Services Committee member added.

Once that information is firmly established, however, expect Congress to have a thorough investigation into possible cracks in the system.

“We will absolutely open for reexamination of what we learned and go from there,” Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said. “We’ve been on a pretty strong secure footing for a long time and I think it’s too soon to speculate whether or not something was missing.”

During a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “I think it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to Sept. 11th has actually returned.”

Asked if the country has become too complacent since 9/11, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said the nation’s security services have “thwarted” many attacks that couldn’t be reported.

There’s “no question we have been thwarting attacks,” Thornberry said, pausing to add, however, that “it is certainly important to make sure that intelligence and law enforcement officials have all the resources and authorities they need.”

Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Intelligence subcommittee, also said that “we will never do so much so as to make any attack impossible.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) suggested the need for additional bomb-sniffing dogs at outdoor events such as the Boston Marathon.

“I think you’ll see more canines at events like this — bomb-sniffing canines. I can see that being the one thing we change in the future,” McCaul told The Hill. 

“But the intelligence is important,” he added. “The problem in this case is we didn’t have any.”

Still, lawmakers across the partisan spectrum note that it’s too early to know if the individual behind the attacks was a so-called “lone wolf” — an individual without a network to infiltrate or ties that could point red flags to potentially terror-like behavior.

If that is the case, it would warrant a different response than a coordinated attack by a larger group, according to the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“A lone wolf, it’s very easy for them to slip under the radar, so to speak, because they’re not talking to anybody [and] we don’t have any information from anybody [about them],” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said.

“We don’t know right now enough information to make any determination whatsoever,” he added. “We’re getting the scientific information now, to find out who made the bomb, what type of bomb, and then the investigation starts.”

Mike Lillis contributed.