“All those folks will have already been engaged in some level of planning for the event long before it occurred,” said Blitzer, an FBI special for 26 years with 12 years of counterterrorism experience.
The security apparatus has evolved dramatically since the 9/11 attacks, said Bradley Schreiber, vice president of Washington operations for the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security.
“The federal government has put a tremendous amount of resources into homeland security and first responder activity since Sept. 11, and what you’ve seen is the best model that we could possibly hope for,” Schrieber, a former senior adviser at the Homeland Security Department, said in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose
Experts have roundly praised the work of first responders in the aftermath of the Boston attacks.
“What I saw yesterday was classic response by all the first responders,” Blitzer said. The focus going forward, he said, will be on the “second responders,” which includes the teams of investigators, bomb technicians and others that will sweep the scene and collect evidence.
The FBI is asking eyewitnesses to provide any photos or videos of the event and its aftermath to help aid its search for clues.
“The biggest challenge that first responders face in today’s ever-changing technology environment is this concept of data crunch,” Schreiber said. Processing the deluge of of social media, phone calls, emails and texts can threaten to overwhelm investigators, he added.
And in investigations of this sort, time is of the essence.
In Blitzer’s experience, the first 24 to 48 hours after an event are the most critical when it comes to the investigation, he said. He cited the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 as an example.
“The night of the bombing we decided to do an offline search in the National Crime Information Center for anybody that was arrested within a few hours of the attack,” he said. “And that’s how we began the identification of Timothy McVeigh as one of the individuals responsible for the bombing, because he had been stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper in a car without license plates, which to us was an indicator of the fact that he was probably a domestic-terrorism terrorist.”
Blitzer explained that domestic terrorists don’t put license plates on their cars because they consider themselves “sovereign citizens.”
“Even if you get by those 48 hours, law enforcement is relentless,” he said. “Even if it takes years, the investigation will never stop.”
Blitzer acknowledged that a degree of push and pull often occurs between federal and local law enforcement agencies because they tend to be competitive people.
“But, when you have something like this happen, believe me, all that pettiness goes away and you all put your shoulder to the wheel and we go in one direction,” he said. “Information goes into our operations centers that can be evaluated and quickly tasked out in terms of getting folks to conduct additional investigations not only here but in other parts of the country and the world. Everyone understands that events like this may not just be in the Boston area. You could have people in other areas in the country or the world that might be involved and that, I think, is the strength of the FBI and the intelligence community to be able to reach out and touch people anywhere in the world.”
While Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty, the federal government does and Blitzer said cases like this tend to be prosecuted in federal court.
“As we recall with Tim McVeigh, he did receive the death penalty and was executed,” he said. “So, the laws on the federal level are just very, very strong and will be applied in this case, I’m sure.”
(Federal News Radio’s Jack Moore contributed to this report
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.