The gushingly positive publicity that the BPD has enjoyed since April 15 is almost over. Donnie Wahlberg will surely miss all of the free promo for his quasi-reality TNT show Boston’s Finest, but this fallout was inevitable. Among those who follow current events, cop worship is in steep decline around here, with the glowing reputation of the fuzz plummeting as facts surface about the Tsarnaev brothers and their likely criminal past.
The BPD’s status has been especially battered in the past two weeks, beginning with Commissioner Ed Davis testifying before Congress about the bombing of the Boston Marathon—it was an ugly sight, the bear-sized bureaucrat clumsily pointing fingers at the feds, and fumbling lines.
Forget Boston’s Finest; the city hasn’t been so humiliated since Southie Rules.
It didn’t take a soothsayer to surmise that national outlets would uncover mountains of dirt on Commonwealth authorities. It’s not exactly privileged info; a quick Google search reveals a glut of readily available bad press—from such credible sources as the Boston Globe and several NPR affiliates—concerning everything from BPD attacks on unarmed teens to disappearing drug evidence. There’s also been reliable coverage, guided by paperwork obtained by local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, about the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. A designated arm of the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the BRIC is one of two known government “fusion” centers in Massachusetts. The intelligence clearing house is also the city’s lifeline to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. If anybody had a chance of identifying the Tsarnaevs ahead of time, it would have been them.
Here’s how they fucked up.
BUILDING BRIC Inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, the BRIC opened for business in 2005. Their stated mission: to “perform and coordinate regional homeland security protection and response missions through investigative and analytical activities,” and to boost “the Region’s ability to identify and interdict terrorist operations.” Despite being charged with chasing bad guys, by the late 2000s a growing group of community leaders and organizers began to believe that the BRIC was targeting activists. Particularly those of the peacenik variety. Cops were openly filming demonstrations—in some cases, groups began to suspect that undercover officers had infiltrated their operations. In an attempt to identify the shenanigans at hand, in 2009, the ACLU of Massachusetts began requesting “records concerning the Department’s involvement in . . . the process by which Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) are created, analyzed, and shared.” In fewer words:
activists had a good hunch that the BRIC was spying on them, in potential violation of both the first and fourth amendments.
Furthermore, demonstrators believed that police were keeping detailed records of their activities—even though they’d committed no crimes. The ACLU set out to prove that rights were indeed being trampled on.
In March 2010, the BPD finally responded to records inquiries made by the ACLU for info on the BRIC. Rather than turn over all requested documents, though, police attorneys only produced papers outlining the center’s procedural guidelines and policies, and neglected to hand over records that revealed specific targets of surveillance. So in August 2011, the ACLU joined 10 groups and federations—Veterans for Peace, the Boston Stop the Wars Coalition, and others—in suing the BPD, and its commissioner Davis.
Under increased legal pressure, 14 months later the department released embarrassing documents showing that the BRIC had indeed been spying on peace activists since at least 2008.
As assumed, they were also keeping records of their non-criminal behavior. In campaigns that the ACLU now argues violated both “federal privacy regulations and the BRIC’s own privacy policies,” from 2009 to 2010, the intelligence center produced SARs on peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrators, as well as on antiwar groups including CODEPINK. The BRIC also documented the behavior of protest speakers and participants including a city councilor, and famed Boston University professor (and pacifist) Howard Zinn, the latter of whom reports listed as an “extremist.” Memos show BRIC officers following peace and environmental protesters around downtown Boston, keeping tabs on their locations for no apparent reason. A read through the reports is demonstrably hilarious, smacking of the scene in Billy Madison where the snooping school janitor tells Adam Sandler’s nemesis that “Billy likes to drink soda.” An “intelligence report” from March 2010 about CODEPINK and United For Justice With Peace rings especially ridiculous, though not to the BRIC. These activities were classified as a “Criminal Act,” with the involved groups being labeled as a threat to homeland security:
The POTUS, Barrack [sic] Obama, will be in Boston on Thursday April 1, 2010 to attend a fundraising reception and dinner at 60 State St . . . April 1st is also dubbed by environment activists . . . as “Fossil Fuel’s [sic] Day 2010” and protests targeting those who invest in or fund the fossil fuel industry are planned to take place city-wide on this date. In the past, these activists have conducted direct actions that ranged from the use of “sleeping dragons” to “banner drops.” There’s a strong likelihood that members of these two groups will also be present at the planned 60 State St protest.
“SHODDY” INTELLIGENCE Back in 2007, Congress passed the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act. The legislation was designed to ensure that homeland security and other federal agencies share information with state and local outfits, like the BPD, and through coordinated efforts such as fusion centers, of which there are an estimated 77 nationwide. Despite that directive—and despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on anti-terrorism technology, resources, and infrastructure—an October 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs determined that “DHS’ work with those state and local fusion centers has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.”
The abysmal assessment also found that the intelligence that fusion centers gather is “oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”
Furthermore, much like another brutal congressional analysis that was conducted two years earlier, the October 2012 assessment found that certain agencies were doing more than just manufacturing tall tales. Some administrators had invented whole operations; according to reports, “DHS officials asserted that some fusion centers existed when they did not.” WHO KNEW? All things considered, it’s of little surprise that neither the BRIC nor the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard picked up on dangers posed by alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev—even though the U.S. government had been warned twice by the Russian government that he had radical ties, and even though Tsarnaev raised more than a few red flags.
As was recently reported by ace Boston crime journalist Michele McPhee for ABC News, forensic evidence from a 2011 triple homicide in Waltham—a city just a few miles north of Boston and Cambridge—matches the DNA of both Tsarnaev brothers.
And the plot only thickens.
The murders of three alleged marijuana dealers in their Waltham apartment have been an enduring regional mystery for years now. Strangely, detectives found the bodies with their throats slit, and covered in about seven pounds of cannabis. The killer or killers also left behind $5,000 in cash. Now, officials tell ABC that cell phone records put both Tsarnaevs close to the murder scene, and that Tamerlan was formerly a roommate and sparring partner of one of the victims, Brendan Mess. Two Dig sources who were close to Mess also confirm his relationship with Tsarnaev. According to them and now officials as well, though Tamerlan was close to Mess, he skipped his friend’s funeral, and stopped boxing at their gym after the homicides. Middlesex officials say that they began investigating links between Tamerlan and Mess after the marathon bombings.
One thing they may have wanted to check into from the get-go, however, was the peculiar date of the Waltham slayings—September 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.
By that time, the U.S. government had twice been warned by the Russian government that Tamerlan had radical ties. He was also on at least three watch lists: the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) which is compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, and a compendium amassed by the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection bureau. For what it’s worth, it also appears that Tamerlan had an Amazon wish list that included several books on how to manufacture fake IDs. Considering that, and his noted anti-peace outbursts at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge, and
it’s almost like he was trying to get caught.
Meanwhile, in Boston, the BRIC spent much of September 2011 monitoring Occupy protesters in Dewey Square, as well as anti-foreclosure activists and other peaceful crusaders. As such, the question now being asked of the BPD and Commissioner Davis—by the ACLU, by Congress, by an increasing number of reporters—is if police intelligence could have, should have netted Tsarnaev. We may never know; the Massachusetts State Police, who oversee the Boston and Maynard fusion centers, say they were not privy to pertinent info. At the same time, in a statement to the Globe, FBI supervisory Agent Jason Pack said that state and local officials did, in fact, have access to relative reconnaissance.
According to Kade Crockford, who tracks the BRIC for the ACLU of Massachusetts, it’s about time that authorities reconsider their priorities. “A big question,” she says, “is whether efforts to build a bigger intelligence haystack may actually be less effective than improving traditional policing methods that focus on solving crimes …”
“Perhaps instead of extensively monitoring activists who are petitioning the government through the democratic process, law enforcement resources should focus on investigating and solving actual crimes, starting with murder.”
“Fewer resources tracking peace activists and more focus on traditional homicide detective work might be the best way to ensure a world in which we are both safe and free.”
FURTHER SCRUTINY While most media outlets spent the better part of this month covering the pseudo-controversy of where Tsarnaev would be buried and endlessly, shamelessly pandering to the “Boston Strong” demographic, a few noted the unsatisfactory performance of Mr. Davis in Washington. Others picked up on the commissioner’s call for drones at next year’s marathon—as if drones would have preemptively identified the Tsarnaevs. Police puff pieces still run rampant, but finally, more than a month since the bombings, responsible reporters are impugning the failures of Boston’s so-called finest—along with their partners at the federal level—in adequately monitoring the now-deceased alleged butcher-bomber Tamerlan. It’s already been announced that there will be further congressional testimonies about the events of April 15. It’s anybody’s guess who will be invited to speak, and which parties will oblige. Next time, though, it would be helpful if the public got to hear from someone besides Davis, and particularly someone high up in the federal government. The commissioner may have embarrassed himself last week, but in merely showing up, he proved himself to be more transparent than the FBI, the DHS, or any other agency that was sworn to fight terrorism in Boston on that day and every other.
Not a single one of them even bothered to testify.