BOSTON: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In the past month much as transpired from the release of the FY 14 budget, to Secretary of Defense Hagel’s first policy speech (with no mention of ISR!), and a rhetorical but nuclear confrontation with North Korea,  all while destabilizing civil strife continues in Syria, Iran remains bent on having nuclear weapons, and terrorist bombings continues in Afghanistan and Iraq. Any one of these topics by themselves could easily take up the 1,000 words or so this forum affords me, but I am going to skip past them all to the events of the week of April 14th which saw the “pressure cooker” bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line, ricin-laced letters addressed to the President and Senator Wicker, a horrific fertilizer plant explosion near El Paso Texas, and a successful massive manhunt for the Boston Marathon Bombers guided by ISR.

Between April 15th and 19th we saw domestically what appears to be lone wolf terrorism aimed at an iconic event, a deranged person threatening national leadership, the killing effects of a disastrous industrial accident, the Intelligence Community’s (IC) ability to quickly provide actionable intelligence from a myriad of uncoordinated data streams, and the law enforcement lockdown of a metropolitan area to facilitate the capture of the “Marathon Bombers.”  As uplifting as the outcome in Boston was with the quick identification and death/capture of the Tsarnaev brothers, it does strike me as asymmetric that the ricin letters did not shut down the mail system or that the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion did not cause similar facilities to be closed or protected until the cause was known.  Presumably all could have been harbingers of greater danger if not actually connected, but fortunately they were not.

Reviewing the Boston Marathon Bombing my initial thoughts bin themselves into the good, the bad, and the ugly.


  • Law enforcement and Intelligence at the Federal, State and Local levels quickly meshed to produce and act on intelligence to end the threat.
  • Our adversaries around the global saw the powerful capabilities of America’s IC to both immediately decipher massive amounts of unconnected information into actionable intelligence and confidently attribute responsibility for actions taken against US security.
  • When threatened, the American people will bond together for their common good and will be relentless in tracking down those who would actively threaten our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”


  • The reality that four people died and over 150 are seriously injured from an attack that is hard to prevent given soft nature of the target and the low profile of the brothers Tsarnaev.
  • The inevitability that other iconic events (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, etc.) will be targets for similar attacks.
  • The perpetrators were in essence “homegrown” and showed others from the politically motivated, to the criminally craven, to the mentally insecure how to achieve way more than “15 minutes of fame” for their cause and/or themselves.


  • The potential backlash from the American people to the massive amount of surveillance they now know they are subjected to without their knowledge or consent.
  • The likely expectation of the American people for government,  given the resources involved,  to be more effective in protecting them.
  •  That two people with relatively unsophisticated and inexpensive weapons can tie up an area the size of Boston for almost five days.

In a broader context while events were playing out in Boston between 15 and 19 April the Senate was defeating extended background checks for gun control and introducing a plan for immigration reform.  The Bothers Tsarnaev as immigrants with lots of weapons will undoubtedly effect the legislative vector of these Obama Administration Second Term signature issues in ways that are hard at least for me to predict.  Regarding the IC (specifically, FBI, DHS, and NGA), the almost near real-time identification and take down of the Brothers Tsarnaev should result increase awareness of and investment in Affects Based Intelligence (ABI), video analytics, link analysis skills and tools, all source analysis, and Law Enforcement Fusion Centers.

Finally, and I hope most significantly, the Boston Marathon bombing will cause the American people to realize that this type of kinetic threat is now constantly with us in our homeland at industrial plants, shopping centers, post offices, schools, rail stations, movie theaters, sports events, etc.  To deal with this “new normal” the American people and their representatives are going to need to have an open debate (delayed since 9/11) regarding  what the balance should be between the government protecting their civil liberties and protecting their security.  The mantra that we are Americans and can have both in equal measures is empty bumper sticker bravado to me meant to deflect tough policy choices.

That’s what I think; what do you think?


18 comments on “BOSTON: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Bob Noonan says:

    Joe, if I look at your last “ugly” point from the eyes of the two brothers, I’m not sure I agree with you. Once Boston released their pictures and found them, they were committed to tracking them down, whatever the cost. This was determination, not fear. So I’ll give you the first three days, but not the last two. During that final day, the LEA and people of Boston were of one mind, find and capture–not be fearful and hide.

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Bob I agree it was determination not fear that track down the brothers Tsarnaev, but regardless of the motivation Boston was locked down for five days. What would have happened if the Tsarnaev Brothers had a assistance and a well devised/executed escape plan and disappaered from Boston to the wilds of Cacuas’? How long should law enforcement and intelligence looked for them in Boston post attack with no leads. We know events like this are all to common in Israel and yet we don’t see Tel Aviv or Juresalem being shut down for days.

      Thanks for the feedback and your insights joemaz

  2. Don Rowan says:

    Joe: I concur with you on almost everything. The only bothersome thought nagging at the back of my mind is that these two characters were identified by a foreign government which asked for an interview of them. It appears a perfunctory effort was put forth then the two forgotten. Someone needs to look at this problem to ensure a procedure is in place so the next conspirators are not overlooked or best given a “once over lightly”…Don Rowan, PhD

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Don this is a tough one. We know now that a case should have been kept open on the older Tsarnaev Brother, but what do you do when you investigate and find nothing? How long do you keep a case open before it becomes a “fishing expedition?” All that said even if the older brother had been “watchlisted” I am not sure whether that would have prevented his bomb making and the attack on 15 April.

      Thanks for your feedback and comment joemaz

      • Don Rowan says:

        The next thing we will hear from some congressperson or another is how this is a failure of the IC — nothing specific just an allegation with nothing to substantiate the criticism. This criticism will be levied at the organizations that deal in foreign intelligence — never the response to the return question of “who and how” rather than generalities…Don Rowan

      • mazzajm1 says:

        Don I believe Senator Grahman is already saying this. Did CIA share with DHS Russia’s interest in the older Tsarnaev Brother. And yes this will only increase as we learn more about what we knew and didn’t know about this family and these brothers living in CONUS joemaz

  3. keith herrington says:

    Like the Elian Gonzalez affair in 2000 ( I believe much more will come out as the specifics of those five days in Boston get revealed in increasing detail. While I don’t believe Americans will complain overmuch about the level of surveillance in public spaces, they will become increasingly concerned about the degree to which those in Watertown had to subordinate their civil liberties for the public good. While all anecdotal at this time, more and more stories are coming out about the house to house search, specifically about the conduct of the authorities when any resistance at all was seen or suspected, and when guns (legal and otherwise) were found within the home. As these stories are confirmed or debunked Americans will be faced with no small amount of soul searching. How many of their God-given liberties are they being asked to give up for level of security the State is willing to provide. Bloomberg, Feinstein and others fervently believe some should, indeed must, be either given up or significantly constrained in order for each individual to live without fear. And while that tradeoff may be perfectly suitable to some if not many in our society, what about those for which this bargain is not acceptable? Are we to just ignore their wishes and desires for the common good? If your answer that last is yes, then I’d ask you to consider why we ever developed and then learned to live within the dictates of the Constitution. The answer to that is simple: people realized then as many do now that the real value of the Constitution is in its protection of the weak and of the minority; and its protections against the tyranny of the majority, or a Government given to extremes.
    Keith Herrington

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Keith as I read your comments I immediately thought about how poorly our night time raids in Afghanistan are understood/accepted by the local people. As with Afganistan I believe the issue domestically is accuracy of the intel on which/how many residence to search in a situation like this. The more grandular and accurate the better the chance of a search being legitimate and reasonable. Nevertheless this neither the American people nor their reps in Congress have come close to a discussion about what the trade space is/should be with regard to security and civil liberties.

      As always Keith I appreciate your thoughtful feedback and informed commentary


  4. Joe,

    I always appreciate your context.

    Here is a hypothetical I wish US citizens would think more about. What if the CIA had more authority to operate in the US? I mean, what if instead of simply putting a name on a watch list they could use new Congressionally approved authorities to proactively investigate anyone, including (US persons and even US citizens) that intelligence indicated was plotting to break the law? Would new authorities have allowed the CIA to develop information that could have tipped off law enforcement before this happened?

    Now I know hypothetical questions like that come with lots of baggage and history and that there are many reasons for why CIA operations in the US are very limited to date. But seems like we might want to start revisiting some old assumptions, don’t you think?


    • mazzajm1 says:

      Bob like me you are clearly a fan of the TV show “24” where Jack Bauer seemed unconstrained by wether the threat was foreign or domestic. The 9/11 Commission took the first swing a changes to deal with the convergence of domestic and foreign intelligence. I don’t have to tell you though that the 9/11’s modest recommendation that Congressional Committees of Jurisdiction be realigned because of this convergence has not been seriously considered let alone acted on. Then there was the TIA intiative that Congress killed as being to “big brother!”

      Anyway you go to the heart of the issue that the American People and their representatives in Washington are going to have come to some accommodation regarding protecting the people’s security and their civil liberties. Before we had wall seperating foreign from domestic intelligence; now we have cahsam for potentially actionable intelligence to fall into because its not clear if its foreign or domestic in nature. This is something above the normal policy level that needs to be addressed

      Always appreciate you stimulating feedbac joemaz

  5. Regarding Activity Based Intelligence – I see continued improvement in how Govt Officials trace activities such as internet hits (ie reports that deceased brother “liked” a radical site, and had visited “Inspire”- Awlaki’s web site. Initial reporting likely resulted in a leadership decision to keep airports and other commerce moving.

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Anthony I think you are correct, but we won’t know for some time what information was used to make what decisions about what was locked down and what was allowed to continue to operate. Appreciate your feedback joemaz

  6. Marv says:

    Good points as always. It strikes me that the kinetic normal you are describing is an element of the complexity of our modern world. As you suggest, that new normal will not retreat. The privacy/protection debate does need to take center stage but not without the cyber-threat non-kinetic component that is every bit as much a part of the new normal as the events you have described.

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Absolutely agree Marv! The cyber component of threatening domestic safety and standard of living is already with us. The only reason I didn’t address here is because Boston was all kinetic and not well planned. Without being didactic I wanted readers to see for themselves how basic Boston was and yet its effects were far reaching. Thanks as always for your feedback and support joemaz

  7. Frank White says:

    Appreciate your analysis and the thoughtful comments from others – Marv is absolutely right about the Cyber component of the new normal but I agree with your not addressing it here. The most distressing thing to me about the event is folded into your bad and ugly, specifically the clear message that for whatever reason, individuals or small groups can, with unsophisticated weapons and virtually no planning, shut down a major city for 5 days, fear or active manhunt, the result was the same. There are plenty of candidates of all stripes who might learn from this. As painful as it is to admit the massive response was to me an overreaction which allows the terrorist mentality to notch a “win” regardless of the outcome i.e. the killing and capture of the perpetrators. I lived for over two years in the UK during the “troubles” ( 74-76) with IRA bombings and terrorist acts on a regular basis. I was astonished at the British peoples pluck and determination to continue living normal lives and in so doing robbing the terrorists of their sense of victory. The authorities did not take this lightly however and mounted massive but largely quiet and covert efforts to disrupt the planning and flow of terror (and capture or kill terrorrists). There were also scary moments and loss of rights – car searches, armed patrols and roadblocks but even after horrendous attacks these were conducted as discreetly as possible and were often successful. Mail boxes and trash bins disappeared and there were other inconveniences but normal life went on without overt fear. There was also no gaurantee nor expectation of “absolute” safety and we were all warned to be alert and on guard at all times. After our national response to 9/11 where we were all made to feel very afraid, I have been cheered by a return to normalcy and not putting terror at the forefront of all our foreign relations, while still urging us to be alert and on guard (see something, say something). We were getting to the recognition that terror exists and is a threat, an emergent unpredictable threat (in the chaos theory of behavior) and, I hoped, learning to accept it as part of our new reality. Anthony McKinney is right when ne notes airports and some commerce continued and Tom Ridge made a good statement, so there has been some progress. But we still had a media circus, the shutdown of a city and beyond that our national reaction has not been as steady and circumspect as I would have hoped. I really think the British and Israeli (for that matter) reactions and methods hold better hope for long term success aginst the use of terror as a weapon. Even during the 1940 London Blitz, hard to imagine a more terrifying time, it was “Keep Calm and Carry On” there are lessons to be learned from their experience which can help shape our national dialogue.

    • mazzajm1 says:

      Thanks Frank! Having lived in London fromm 1988 to 1991 (Horse Guards Attack, Brighton Bombing to Assisinate Margaret Thatcher, and the mortoring of #10 from right below my window office in MOD) I share your endorsement of British reaction to terror – – – don’t be terrorized. Of course, not being terrorized does not mean not being afraid or concern; rather ist about controlling those emotions and allowing security forces to do their work without shutting down large urban areas. joemaz

      • Frank White says:

        Exactly, not being terrorized doesn’t mean doing nothing, be alert, pay attention to your surroundings, report, help the security forces etc but dont lock yourself away. i still know many folks who have never flown since 2001 – the bad guys win there.

  8. T. Krueger says:

    This is more a general note. West, Texas is not near El Paso, as identified in paragraph one. It is approximately 9.5 hours (650 miles) to the east. It is along the IH-35 corridor 1 hour south of Fort Worth and 20 minutes north of Waco.

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