The Boston bombs roused a monster

An overreaction to the attacks could result in massive, self-important bodies wielding excessive powers and hounding the wrong people

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The success or failure from the point of view of the perpetrators of an attack like the bombing of the Boston Marathon depends on the over-reaction of those targeted. The 9/11 attacks succeeded as an act of terror because it led to the US fighting disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and sanctioning the use of torture and imprisonment without trial. It turned the US into a more authoritarian state in which civil liberties are curtailed or discounted, and spawned an elephantine and costly security apparatus.

It was depressing to see heavily armed Swat teams with assault rifles and body armour debouching from armoured vehicles in Boston as they used to do in Belfast. Curfews, which people in Baghdad and Fallujah have become inured to, suddenly become acceptable in Massachusetts. In contrast to Northern Ireland and Iraq, this is done to the applause of local inhabitants. The reason for Swat teams and curfews is understandable, but measures like these get people cumulatively accustomed to accepting without protest an authoritarian government.

Much of the initial impact of the Boston bombing and the pursuit of Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, will dissipate. Unfolding stories like this swiftly shift from being over-covered to under-covered. Journalists know the feeling of relief and frustration when editors back home decide that the story to which they have been giving wall-to-wall coverage, is old news.

Unfortunately, this often happens at the very moment when the long-term significance of what has happened is becoming clearer. Pundits who have been making embarrassingly premature comments based on too limited evidence might at last have something revealing to say. Instead, they find that the media caravan has moved on and is no longer interested in their views.

An outcome of the bombings will be an enhanced sense of public insecurity, and support for those who claim to be doing something about it. Before the Boston attack there were signs of restiveness in the US at the excessive size of the post-9/11 security bureaucracy at a time of budget cuts. The FBI, put in charge of investigating domestic terrorism by President Bush, has 103 joint terrorism task forces, supposedly linking local and state police to federal terrorism investigators. As a result of 9/11, the US has the services of the National Counterterrorism Centre, which analyses and collates intelligence information for the Office of the Director National Intelligence. This, in turn, is supposed to coordinate and oversee the work of America's 17 intelligence agencies. Then there is the sterling work of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which unites the 22 federal departments and agencies that employ 240,000 people.

The creation of a bureaucratic Leviathan like this is more likely to impede than assist the gathering and analysis of intelligence. Too many people do not know what they are doing and there are too many layers of responsibility. Such vast organisations are on an endless quest to justify and expand their own influence and protect themselves from rivals. Power delegated to them because of a single crime is seldom reclaimed.

The World Trade Center's destruction on 9/11 is the obvious example of an event used to justify the expansion of security agencies. But for a compendium of these events it is well worth reading the newly published The Annals of Unsolved Crime by Edward Jay Epstein, one of the greatest American investigative journalists, a compelling and informed account of how crime and the needs of power and politics intertwine.

Epstein recalls that the kidnapping of the child of the aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932 enabled J Edgar Hoover "to expand the FBI, which he had headed since its creation, into a national police agency". Police arrested a carpenter called Bruno Hauptman, who had part of the ransom paid by Lindbergh in his garage. He was found guilty of kidnapping and murder. It is likely he was a member of a gang of swindlers cashing in on a crime they had not committed themselves. No fingerprints, fibres, footprints or witnesses ever showed that Hauptman was in the Lindbergh house. Executed in 1936, he rejected an offer of $50,000 from Hearst newspapers, and another by the governor of New Jersey, to commute his death sentence in return for a confession.

Criminal investigations have become far more sophisticated. But Epstein's account of the FBI's pursuit of the person responsible for the anthrax attacks in 2001 suggests that this investigation was even more perverted by the need to show results. The anthrax, of a particularly virulent strain, was sent by letter and killed five people. Having decided early on that the sender was a "lone wolf" American scientist, the FBI pursued several scientists who seemed to fit this profile. One, Dr Steven Hatfill, was so closely investigated (the press alerted to the FBI's suspicions), that he lost his job, contracts, and many associates. He sued the government, a federal judge expressing outrage that the FBI had pursued him for five years without "a scintilla of evidence". He was awarded $5.8m in compensation.

Undaunted, the FBI went after another scientist, Dr Bruce Ivins, offering $2.5m to his twins to testify against their father. Under pressure, bankrupted by legal fees, drinking heavily and having suffered a mental breakdown, Dr Ivins killed himself in 2008. A week later, the FBI declared Dr Ivins the sole perpetrator of the anthrax attacks, though its gargantuan investigation had turned up nothing conclusive against him and its presumption of his guilt depended on dubious scientific evidence.

The case remains a telling example of how security agencies adopt faulty preconceptions, which become too embedded within the institution to be abandoned without loss of credibility and prestige. The worst damage stemming from the Boston bombing will be if the security behemoths created or enlarged after 9/11, whose effectiveness is in doubt, were rejuvenated and expanded.

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