Romney Leads Hearing on Security Lessons Learned from Boston Marathon Bombing

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), Ranking Member of Homeland Security’s Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight Subcommittee, along with Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), the Subcommittee’s Chair, today led a hearing focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and its impacts on emergency preparedness and homeland security in the decade since the attack.

Witnesses for the hearing were Edward Davis, former Boston Police Commissioner; Richard A. Serino, former Deputy FEMA Administrator; and Kerry Sleeper, a former Deputy Assistant Director at the FBI—all held these positions at the time of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013.

A full transcript of Romney’s opening statement and excerpts from witness questioning can be found below. Full video can be found here.

Opening Remarks:

Thank you, Chair Hassan, for convening this panel. Two of them, at least, are long-term friends. Commissioner Davis and I worked together when he was Superintendent of the police department in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then became Commissioner in Boston. Rick Serino and I, as well, have also worked together and he’s been a real force in our community and nationally.

I don’t know Mr. Sleeper as well, but I presume I’ll be more informed by the time this day is over. I appreciate the witnesses that are here—able to describe some of the lessons we’ve learned from that terrible tragedy a decade ago and to help us understand what things we can do to improve our readiness for potential acts of devastation in the future.

Obviously, in the years that have passed, a lot of steps have been taken by the public sector, the private sector, as well as the federal government to make our nation more secure. But we’ve learned from some of the security gaps that have existed in the past, and we’ve made an effort to become more safe as a nation.

The coordination between federal, state, and local agencies has become a high priority after 9/11, as well as after the bombing in Boston. And that’s, I think, even more important, following our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ongoing turmoil that we’re seeing in the Middle East, these call for continued vigilance and effort to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to protect the homeland and our citizens.

I also know that the 2013 Boston Marathon attack coincided with the rise of social media, and I’m interested in your perspectives on the impact of social media on the security of our nation. Obviously, the number of tips that must come in to law enforcement is an extraordinarily large number. Finding ones that are likely to result in death or destruction has to be like looking for a needle in a haystack and how we are able to do that is a question of great concern.

So, I’m going to I’m going to pause with those opening comments and make sure that we have the time to hear from our witnesses. But with that, Madam Chair, thank you for your convening of this group and hopefully we can learn lessons that are able to be passed through our federal, state, and local communities. Thank you.

Questions for the Witnesses:

On lessons learned from the Boston Marathon Bombing:

Senator Romney: Thank you, Madam Chair. Commissioner Davis, I’m interested in your perspective today as to what lessons we learned that we really haven’t implemented change to address from this tragedy. You look back and say, okay, we’ve done a better job, perhaps in coordinating with the FBI and getting information from the FBI to local law enforcement. But the response to the Marathon Bombing was seen as being effective, by and large. But there are there are certainly lessons to be that were considered that we’ve really not fully acted upon … What are we missing? What should we be doing that we really are not doing as a result of what we learned from that tragic event?

Edward Davis: Thank you, Senator … The FBI made enormous strides just after this incident. I testified, I met with Director Mueller, and they responded quickly. And the JTTF acted or were more effective afterwards because of the changes that the Bureau put in place. We all have respect for each other. We work very closely together on these issues.

But I see a very interesting situation developing now with an uncertainty about what police tactics are appropriate.I’ve talked to, I just spent two days with police chiefs from all over the country at Harvard. And there’s a continuing sort of message that we don’t want to go near any sensitive technologies because of the backlash we could get from it. So, there’s really an uncertainty as to what’s proper. And there are some jurisdictions, some in Massachusetts, that at the local level have stopped police from using things like facial recognition technology or access to camera technology.

And I understand the concerns about privacy in those situations. But we must remember as a government that the police are the security team for the poor people in our in our cities. And it’s scary to think that a political body has eliminated the use of an effective tool to solve crime at the local level when people who are, the people I work with in the Fortune 500 companies, can purchase the technology and use it. It’s just—that’s really the uncertainty of what a police department should be doing in this realm, on the technology side, needs a clear debate and direction. I think that’s one of the biggest impediments that I see.

Kerry Sleeper: Thank you, Senator. I’ll follow very closely behind Ed’s comments. Today, we are awash in threats in this country, whether they’re terrorism threats, counterintelligence threats, threats on social media, deep dark web people claiming to be belonging to some type of an ideology or a grievance they hold.

The FBI’s National Threat Operation Center receives about 3,000 threats a day that they have to mitigate with their state local partners. On top of that, we have the swatting calls that every state’s been experiencing across the country. Our responders are tired. They’re stretched thin. We have resource concerns. So, the only way for us to effectively mitigate that is to be smarter, is to use tools and technology to be able to mitigate those threats, to use intelligence and analysis as effectively as we possibly can in order to mitigate those threats…

Richard Serino: Along the same lines, is that lack of social cohesion, partly because of COVID. From ten years ago, after the Boston Marathon bombings, we saw people coming together. And then COVID happened. We started to see that fragmentation and we started to see the inability … I think that also, as we start to look at the workforce, we are losing people, you know, all across public safety, across public health, in across emergency management, in hospitals. Unless we start to really look at how we can start to change the paradigm of how people look at service in this country.

You know, I had the opportunity with that team and we started something called FEMA Corps for 18 to 24 year-olds to do a year of service. Imagine doing some service in public safety, doing service in emergency management, or public health, and taking that opportunity to give people, whether it’s a gap year or when they’re in college or after college in that age group, to do a year of service to make that something that will then help us. We need teachers across the board. So, how do we actually start to look at all those issues around the workforce and create something that’s an opportunity for young people to actually do service to the country because we are seeing such a need…

On potential gaps in our security planning:

Romney:I had the occasion to help organize the Olympic Games in 2002 in Salt Lake City. And this was, of course, following only by five or six months, the attack of 9/11. We suddenly became very focused on how we could protect the games and wondered if they would be the target of a terror act. And there were three major categories that we focused on. One was hardening the places that they might attack and given the fact that there were very few places to harden, relatively, we knew what we had to do and we hardened those things.

Number two was our capacity to respond where there was an attack, and again, we knew what days that the attack might occur was the, you know, roughly three weeks of the Olympics. We knew where we’d have to be, where the EMS vehicles needed to be and so forth. And then finally, intelligence. I must admit that which gave me the greatest confidence that our games would be safe was that the FBI put in place a very substantial intelligence capability in Utah prior to the games and was following potential threats, and so, I felt relatively secure.

As we now look at the circumstance of protecting our cities and our people. Those three categories are more challenging because you’re not just protecting a single site for a few days. There are so many potential sites. So, hardening, for instance, all the churches, all the malls, all the grocery stores, all the sporting events, it strikes me as being almost impossible to harden every potential target.

Our response capability is really quite good. We’ve improved our capacity to respond to an emergency. Our law enforcement is coordinating far better than we have before. But I look and believe that intelligence and threat assessment is probably the one area that’s most critical to being able to protect our citizens. And I wonder how we’re doing in our intelligence gathering, in identifying threats, and protecting against those threats that are identified, and what we need to be doing more in that regard. 

Commissioner Davis spoke about the technology that we might be able to use. Is that the great gap we have—our foes have access to new technology that didn’t exist back in 2002, frankly? And now are we lagging in that area? But of the three categories, if you will, the hardening, the responding, or in the intelligence gathering, where’s the greatest gap? Where is the vulnerability greatest? And where should we be devoting our focus and the need for the greatest improvement?

Sleeper: Thank you, Senator. It’s a complex question, sir. It would take a complex response. As I said earlier, unfortunately as a country we’re awash in threat. First, starting with the intelligence community—our intelligence communities’ efforts that have never been greater, but our adversaries have never been greater—Russia, Iran, North Korea, China. We were concerned about Chinese spy balloons going over our country, but yet a number of our public safety agencies use DJI, UAS aerial vehicles that have the likelihood of conveying all of the sensitive information they convey back to the Chinese Communist Party looking at our cities, our counties, our states with advanced technology.

Romney:It makes no sense, doesn’t it?

Sleeper: No, sir. That’s one example, but the threats we face are being addressed by the intelligence community, by our federal partners. But they’re stretched. They’re stretched to their limits. And as Ed indicated, technology is both a friend and a foe to us in those areas.

What is particularly concerning to me from an intelligence information sharing process is there’s still—and the reason I indicated why we and what I mean, the federal partners, the state and local partners, our lawmakers really need to convene and have a discussion as simple as authorities. There are debates on what authorities our federal partners have to effectively assist state and local law enforcement right now.

We have to address those issues. We’re in the middle of a threat environment and we can’t be trying to decide who can look at this or who can’t because what tool they have or what authorities they have. That needs to be resolved so it’s perfectly clear. And then finally, also as Ed indicated, while there’s a move towards ensuring the privacy of all of us, which we want in information sharing, there’s also a concern that we ensure there’s a cut out, a legal and appropriate cut out, for state and local law enforcement so we don’t go dark with information because the foes we’re looking at now are not in a clubhouse as they were when I was doing this business, and you could wire someone up and send them in. They’re on social media. That’s where they’re meeting. And if we don’t have access to that social media, the deep and dark web, we can’t protect the communities we’re there to serve.

Serino: Thank you. I think on the intelligence aspect, on those three aspects, the hardening, the response in the intel, and I think you have two experts carrying that on the intel. But I would also emphasize, as part of the intel, is looking at the public as an asset versus a liability at times. Looking at how we can educate the public and how we can gain information from them to share information. And that goes back to what we mentioned earlier about trust, generating enough trust that the public will then trust the law enforcement to public safety, public health.

We’ve seen the deterioration of trust in emergency management. So, I think that that’s one really key aspect as part of the intelligence as well as everything that Kerry and Ed had said, but in addition—not just the response, because the public can be an asset there to the response. We saw that in the Marathon bombing, how the public helped save lives using tourniquets, even though a lot of places weren’t using them. Now, we’ve seen thousands of lives since.

The hardening of the areas is key. We cannot let each one of those stay in their own silos, in their own cylinder of excellence. We have to bring them together. But I also think we have to look at how do we do recovery, and more importantly, mitigation ahead of time, to mitigate a lot of the issues, whether around security or response to disasters as well, in looking at how we bring all that together. It cannot just be one. We have to bring them all together.

Davis: I’ll talk a little on the quality of our response. On the response component of it, the officers and public safety officials who are responding to an incident need to be able to communicate and they need to be able to pass data around. So, spectrum is really important in making sure that we have the capability to be able to ingest the information to the edge, get them to the people who are in the field is extremely important.

I just want to touch on that. We do target hardening every day. We go into facilities, schools, houses of worship, and government buildings. And we’re surprised at how woefully inadequate some of the places are. It doesn’t take much to get them up to a level that might dissuade somebody from attacking them. But it’s sort of the attitude that this can’t happen here that we battle, right?

So, Congress passed the SAFETY Act after 9/11 and the sports facilities that we work in have safety certification and to maintain that certification they must have testing done. We can go in and do a plan for somebody and improve the locks and then walk away and everything goes to hell afterwards. But if there’s a continual process of auditing, red teaming, checking on the improvements that were made, that’s what makes the SAFETY Act so important and impactful to these facilities. And expanding those possibilities into houses of worship and schools, I think makes a makes an enormous amount of sense because those requirements will be in place and there’ll be a constant review of what’s happening now.

On the recent rise in crime:

Romney:  Thank you. I’m over my time. Sorry! Well, I just had a different topic, an entirely different topic. I can’t resist with the former commissioner just raising that topic. And that is, I have noted with alarm a huge increase in crime in the District of Columbia. And I don’t know to what extent that’s happened around the country, but I look at cities like San Francisco and Portland and from what I read, it suggests that a degree of lawlessness has increased in those places and in others of our cities. I don’t specifically know what’s happened in your former city, the city of Lowell or the city of Boston, but do you have a sense of what it is that’s going wrong and what we need to do to adjust ourselves in some respects? I mean, in the D.C. area, automobile theft is up dramatically, assaults are up dramatically, murders are up dramatically.

I saw Jacksonville, Mississippi, in a report on the news last night, went from 50 murders per year to now 150 murders per year. What are we doing wrong? What is the gap here? And as a former commissioner of the Boston Police Department and with a very impressive record in that responsibility, do you have some advice that you might give to us?

Davis: Every year in my career in Lowell, the crime rate went up for 20 years until we found out the community policing and problem solving could stop that. And as soon as we implemented the program, the crime rate dropped 5% every year after we did that. It went down 50%. The same thing happened in Boston. We implemented CompStat in community policing and the crime rate went down for seven years.

It went down 5% per year. We learned how to control this. In the course of that, did we lock too many people up? Yes, we did. The prisons became packed and there needed to be an adjustment. But the whiplash has been so severe that now no one is going into jail. They’re letting people who are violent criminals re-offend over and over again and they’re not being held. And the thing that we learned in the eighties, in the nineties is there’s a very small percentage of people who commit a large percentage of the crimes and if you separate those people from society, the crime rate will go down.

I know there’s all sorts of race and culture and enforcement debates going on, but we lost sight of that simple fact that if you continue to offend violently, you should be separated from the community.