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Investigators Tackling Boston Bombings Must ‘Triage,’ Crowd-source Information

Gwen Ifill talks with former deputy national security advisor Juan Zuarte and former senior FBI Official Don Borelli for their takes on the investigation and how authorities are sifting through evidence, as well as the president’s characterization of the bombings as a terrorist attack.

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    We return again to the bombings in Boston.

    To help us assess what we know about the attack and explain what investigators are looking for now, we turn to Juan Zarate, who was deputy national security adviser for terrorism under President George W. Bush, and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Don Borelli, a 25-year FBI veteran who is now chief operating officer of he Soufan Group, which consults on security matters.

    Juan Zarate, the president said today the investigation is in infancy, but from what we know, we now know that there was a pressure cooker involved, that there may have been beads involved or BBs involved, shrapnel in any case, and that maybe a circuit board was found that was used as a timer.

    What does this tell us about the source of this explosion?

    JUAN ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, Gwen, this is part of the forensic work that happens now.

    And what authorities are looking for are signatures in the devices themselves that can give them some clues as to who may have been behind the attacks. What this tells us, at least to date, what we know is this was designed to have maximum effect, even though the explosive charge itself wasn't massive.

    It was designed with the ball bearings and the nails and other shrapnel to have maximum impact upon explosion. And so what that tells us is that this is more than the work of sort of a mere amateur, but it's certainly not sophisticated enough to tell us that it's the work of a bomb-making mastermind.

    And so this, again, is helpful, it's probative, but it doesn't give authorities enough to determine if we're talking about a lone wolf actor or a downsized al-Qaida-inspired attack.


    Don Borelli, how do you read that? You were on the New York City joint terrorism task force. And we now know that there are maybe 2,000 — 2,000 tips or more coming into the Boston Police Department and the FBI. Is that helpful? Is that just a lot to get through?

  • DON BORELLI, The Soufan Group:

    It's both.

    We have seen in context of the medical teams talking about the word triage, where they had to triage the wounded individuals. This is the theory going on now with the FBI. They're getting thousands of leads from citizens, from informants, from our partners overseas, from everywhere.

    And they have got to prioritize those leads and triage them and work the most positive ones first and the ones that are potentially perishable.


    We have been watching, Juan Zarate, the investigators literally combing the streets where the bombing occurred on their hands and knees, picking up every little thing.

    If it rains tonight, as the reporter from the WBUR was saying, does that impede the investigation?


    It will a bit.

    The crime scene is outside. The wind and the rain and the elements no doubt will have an impact. And so the FBI investigators, the federal authorities, state and locals, who are part of this, are no doubt doing everything possible to gather bits of information and detritus on the ground before the rains hit.

    But, in addition, as we have heard, they're talking to witnesses. They're trying to crowd-source evidence gathering. They're looking — the intelligence community is looking back at intel. We have heard, for example, Gwen, that there was no chatter before the event.

    But keep in mind that, before the underwear bomber, Abdulmutallab, who tried to explode the underwear bomb over Detroit, there was also at least initially a sense that there wasn't chatter before. But, upon retrospect, there were bits and pieces of intelligence data that had not been put together. And so it's forensic work on the ground, but also intelligence work, both retrospectively and prospectively.


    Don Borelli, we obviously don't have enough information to get into too much speculation here, but based on your experience with investigating these types of crimes, is there any — are there any signs here that this is domestically, a homegrown kind of activity, or this something that would only be done by al-Qaida or someone else who would usually claim responsibility?


    It's in — in my opinion, it's way too early to tell.

    There are some things that would lend me to think that it's maybe more homegrown just because of the type of devices used. As Mr. Zarate said, these weren't overly sophisticated devices. They were effective, but not the type of things that we have seen when individuals travel to Pakistan, Afghanistan and get the training.

    For example, you compare it to the attempted New York City subway plot in 2009 with Najibullah Zazi, where he was actually going to use TATP, which he had learned to make overseas. So there — certainly, that was a bit more — it took more training, more complicated, and had that international aspect to it, whereas this — as we have seen and heard, you can get the recipe for this — these bombs, these pressure cooker bombs, on the Internet anywhere.


    Juan Zarate, you worked in the White House. Is it significant that the president today chose to use the word terrorism and terror, when he didn't yesterday?


    Well, I think it has political significance.

    Keep in mind that the U.S. government has a definition under criminal law and otherwise for what terrorism is. And I think initially the president wanted to be very careful not to be the first fact witness as to what was happening, not committing to any set of facts or criteria.

    But I think obviously seeing what had happened, understanding what the FBI was starting to see, understanding the nature of these explosive devices, that he was comfortable and probably felt a little bit of political pressure to call it what it is, which is an act of terror.

    I think the real trick here is the White House wanting to calibrate the judgment, not wanting to jump to conclusions, and also wanting to send a message of national resilience, which is something you have heard consistently not just from the White House, but from homeland and counterterrorism officials for the last couple of years.


    Don Borelli, as the nation struggles to try to find the balance between that kind of resiliency and yet awareness of what might be going on, does it matter that this is a different kind of venue, that is to say, a big spectator event, where someone knew there was going to be a lot of attention paid?


    Well, there's — you know, it's a double-edged sword.

    The fact that there are so many spectators, so many cameras, that gives the investigative team that many more leads, because, as we have heard, there's been so much assistance from the citizens of — sending in their films, their stills, the video cameras.

    On the other hand, we always look at these major events as an opportunity for a terrorist to strike. So whether it's the Super Bowl, the marathon, New York New Year's Eve, when you have a lot of people in one space and a lot of media coverage, this is a recipe for a terrorist attack, should they want to take advantage of it, because not only you can inflict damage on a lot of people, but with the eyes of the world watching, you can really have that psychological impact as well.


    Let me ask you to follow up on that, because with the eyes of the world watching, the officials in Boston have made a repeated attempt to get people to say — to give up their pictures, their videos, their cell phone photos.

    How — is that what they have to rely on now to break this case? Is that why they're making that public appeal?


    I think they're not relying on any one investigative technique, but they're exploring all options.

    They're going to be using photographs. They're going to be using eyewitness statements, informants, technical information, maybe cell phone, what was going on in the cell phone towers before and after the bombings.

    So, you know, it's not just the pictures, that's a piece of it. But you have to look at every avenue that could give you potential information to go out and pursue further leads.


    So, Juan Zarate, we're no longer depending on claims of responsibility by shadowy figures anymore?


    That's right.

    I think the fact that you don't have claims, you don't have a signature to the nature of the strike itself makes it altogether more difficult to determine responsibility and to attribute the attack.

    And I think, unfortunately, that's the world we live in, in terms of terrorism. It could be terrorists of any ideological stripe. It could be a lone wolf actor. It could be a network set of actors. And I think that's, unfortunately, the world we live in.


    Is it fair to say we have to be prepared for this investigation to continue for some time?


    I think that's right.

    I think we need to look back, for example, to the 1990s, where you had domestic terrorist attacks that took a long time to actually figure out. Remember the manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the Centennial bomber, something similar to this attack. Keep in mind, the Unabomber; it took a while to figure out who was behind it.

    I think we have grown accustomed to the al-Qaida-style attacks, where they claim responsibility, where there are signatures to it, fairly easy to attribute, where the responsibility and attribution is actually part of the political program and messaging from the terrorist group.

    This may be a case where the people who perpetrated it don't want to be found. And that will prove difficult for the investigation.


    Juan Zarate and Don Borelli, thank you both so much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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