Missed clues or unreal expectations: Could FBI have stopped Orlando attack?

Crosses, one for each victim, line a walkway as a memorial to those killed in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting a few blocks from the club, early Friday, June 17, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Weeks before he killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, Omar Mateen walked into Lotus Gunworks in Jensen Beach, Florida.

The owner of the store, Robert Abell, told reporters Thursday that Mateen wanted to buy body armor and ammunition but acted so suspicious that the store reported it to authorities.

However, CNN reported that lacking a name, surveillance video, or other identifying information, the FBI was unable to determine that it was the same man they had investigated twice before for possible ties to terrorism.

As frustrating as it seems in retrospect, if that report is accurate, that may have been the right decision.

"Quite frankly, without other information, I think it probably falls into the category of a lot of other information that's received that's not necessarily actionable," said Dennis Franks, a security consultant and former supervisory special agent for the FBI.

FBI field offices receive many phone calls and emails every day with potential leads, but "unfortunately the resources just aren't there to investigate every piece of information that comes in."

Franks said the problem is a combination of a lack of staff and funding and the "overwhelming" amount of tips and leads the FBI must sift through.

It is a challenge the general public may not fully understand, and the questions that have arisen in the wake of the Orlando attack raise the possibility that Americans have unrealistic expectations of what the FBI can do to stop a terrorist attack.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI has shifted a lot of resources to counterterrorism, at times to the detriment of other investigative areas, but there are still legal and logistical limitations on their investigations.

"They don't have crystal balls," said Jim Wedick, a former FBI supervisor with 35 years of experience.

He has no personal knowledge of the Mateen investigation, but generally speaking, he believes if there is even a slim thread to follow, FBI agents will follow it to the best of their ability.

"One thing they love to do is arrest a terrorist or find somebody stockpiling weapons for some illicit purpose, I guarantee you," he said.

John Iannarelli, retired FBI agent and author of "How to Spot a Terrorist," said the many leads the FBI receives must be prioritized and triaged, but rules require that every terror-related tip is investigated.

"Any information received on any sort of potential terrorism cannot be ignored," he said.

If a tip is too vague, it will be treated as a low priority.

"If you receive information but there's nothing tangible to go with it... where do you go from there?" Iannarelli said.

Starting in 2013, the FBI had conducted a 10-month investigation of Mateen after he made comments to coworkers about having terrorist ties and wanting to "martyr" himself. They found no evidence of illegal activity and closed the case.

Mateen was interviewed again in 2014 because of his connections to a U.S.-born suicide bomber in Syria. By the time he launched his attack on the Pulse nightclub Sunday, he had completely fallen off the FBI's radar.

The agency has already come under criticism by some in Congress for failing to stop Mateen, but it is unknown if any credible warning signs were truly missed.

In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) questioned why the original investigation of Mateen was closed.

"It's not really something where I'm saying 'the FBI did a rotten job when they closed this,' but shouldn't we at least ask: What would have happened had the investigation stayed open?" Paul said.

A 10-month investigation is a substantial dedication of resources, Franks said. Whether evidence was overlooked in the process that would have justified keeping the case open or keeping Mateen on a watch list remains to be seen.

It is easier to look back now that Mateen is known to be a terrorist and connect all of the dots. When the FBI was conducting its assessment of him in 2013, though, their options and resources would have been restricted by agency guidelines unless they found solid evidence.

Jeff Danik, a former FBI counterterrorism supervisor, said there is "a rough balancing act" at play during an assessment, but if an innocent person was the subject of a tip, they would probably want there to be limits how far the investigation can go.

"How many people can we talk to before you say, 'Look, enough's enough?'" Danik said.

If agents are able to gather enough evidence to move past the assessment phase with a suspect, he believes they have the resources they need to sufficiently investigate.

"Anything that's actionable that they can actually open a full case on, they're more than capable of getting to the bottom of," Danik said.

FBI Director James Comey has said the agency will review its handling of Mateen's case, but he saw no evidence so far that it should have been handled differently.

It is understandable that the public wants answers at a time like this, but there is a tendency to jump to conclusions. According to Wedick, information constantly evolves and changes in the early days of an investigation, so "the rush the judgment is always not good."

Omar Mateen is what some experts say terrorism in the U.S. looks like now: self-radicalized, inspired by internet propaganda, and operating with few resources and little coordination. As a result, their plots are much harder to detect and prevent.

Although Franks left the FBI in 2008, it had already become clear at that point that the biggest threat was lone wolves and "wannabes" who were inspired by terrorist organizations. He described these people as "malcontents looking for a cause."

For Mateen and others, it seems that ISIS is providing that cause, and the government is still struggling to effectively counter the group's propaganda.

Iannarelli also sees the self-radicalized ISIS devotee as latest in a long line of lone wolf terrorists that the FBI has always been ready to handle.

"The lone wolf is nothing new to law enforcement," he said, but this is an issue where input from the public is especially important.

"The FBI can't be everywhere and doesn't see everything," he said.

The Unabomber case was a lone wolf terror investigation that was solved with the help of public tips, for example.

The reality is that not all terrorists and mass shooters can be identified before they act. While the FBI's review of Mateen's case is ongoing, the existence of the attack itself is not inherently evidence that it was mishandled.

"It is possible, indeed probable, that violent attacks will occur even with superb law enforcement," journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Friday. "This is the tradeoff we make for liberty."

Nobody wants to hear that terrorism cannot be stopped, and no law enforcement agency operates under the assumption that they will fail.

"I think the public's expectation is certainly that they want to be protected from every terrorist attack," Iannarelli said.

As many have observed, though, the police and the FBI need to be right every time but a terrorist only needs to get lucky once to cause a catastrophe.

"If somebody just goes ballistic so quickly, it's almost impossible to stop them," Danik said.

The FBI rightly sets out to prevent every potential attack.

"I think that should be the standard we strive for," Danik said. "There's really no other standard that's acceptable. You have to be right every single time."

Franks said it is unrealistic to count on the government to succeed every time, but they are probably doing a better job than the public knows.

"If the public knew the unpublicized successes, they would be more proud of the government efforts," he said.

Franks compared it to a dam holding back water. Eventually, leaks will appear, and when you plug one, there will be another somewhere else.

"It's always a challenge," he said.

Wedick blamed the media and television shows for giving the public an idealized and amped-up view of what counterterrorism agencies do.

"They've got this impression that we've got the best equipment, that we've got unlimited funds, and we can do anything," Wedick said.

The reality is quite different. While FBI agents on television were often able to track down anyone within minutes by 2000, his field office did not yet have internet access at agents' desks.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said a similar phenomenon has been seen with court cases and police forensics in the past. It is likely compounded with counterterrorism, though, because the general public has no frame of reference for how covert work is really done.

"What the average American knows about the CIA and the FBI probably close to exclusively comes from what they've seen on television and movies," Thompson said.

He pointed to the series "24" as an example of the implausible depiction of counterterror technology. Satellites, traffic camera, phone traces, and facial recognition were instantly accessible and provided results in minutes.

"It was astounding what resources they were able to bring to bear in a single hour in every episode... I don't think '24' was a documentary," he said.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off