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The Road to Fort Lauderdale

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The Road to Fort Lauderdale

Like many self-radicalized “lone wolves,” the perpetrator of last week’s attack was on law enforcement’s radar. January 9, 2017
Public safety

According to reports, Esteban Santiago, the 26-year-old former National Guardsman who killed five people and wounded six others in Friday’s shooting spree at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is crazy. But so is our continued reliance on “security” systems aimed at preventing terrorists or mentally ill people from inflicting such mayhem. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, then the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Transportation Security Administration, and other agencies charged with keeping us safe from people like Santiago are at best inadequate, or at worst, crazy.

The failures begin in Anchorage, Alaska, where Santiago, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico, had lived and worked as a security guard since 2014. When the obviously agitated young man walked into the FBI office there in November, complaining about hearing Islamic State voices in his head telling him to commit violence and saying that he was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency, officials contacted local police, who gave him a 72-hour mental-health evaluation. He was deemed nonviolent, released, and then apparently escaped further law-enforcement scrutiny. In December, the police returned the gun they had confiscated in Santiago’s car during his FBI visit. He had carried the magazine clip with him to his meeting with federal agents. One official told the New York Times that the returned gun is believed to have been the one used in his deadly rampage.

It’s not yet known why the FBI concluded that Santiago wasn’t dangerous. He was clearly a delusional man. His relatives said that he had not been himself since 2010, when he returned from a nine-month deployment in Iraq. He’d been discharged last August by the Alaska National Guard for unspecific “unsatisfactory performance.” Whatever the FBI’s reasoning, Santiago’s name was never added to any law-enforcement watch or to the federal “no fly” list. Nor were local police able to charge him with a crime, despite having been called to his apartment on at least four occasions on complaints relating to domestic abuses of his older girlfriend, believed to have been the mother of his child.

“It’s hard to argue that the FBI did not drop the ball on this case,” said Michael Sheehan, the NYPD’s former deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism. “The FBI too often fails to notify local police when a deranged, possibly violent person is heading their way.” 

Santiago’s case resembles that of two other mass shootings whose perpetrators were also investigated and dropped by federal and local law-enforcement agencies prior to deadly attacks. Based partly on a tip from Russian intelligence, FBI officials interviewed, investigated, and then ended surveillance of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers who eventually carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Federal agents had also investigated Omar Mateen for possible links to terror twice before he killed 49 and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last June.

“I’m not blaming the FBI,” said Michael Downing, the deputy chief and commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s counterterrorism and special operations bureau, “but we need a safety net to prevent potentially dangerous people from being lost.”

The LAPD, in fact, is implementing a new program, dubbed RENEW, specifically designed to spot, track, and assist individuals at risk of being radicalized or who are mentally disturbed and possibly prone to violent acts. In the next few weeks, 115 sworn officers paired with 50 health clinicians will begin monitoring and providing social services to such “at risk” individuals so that law enforcement does not lose track of them. Though the FBI is legally restricted from following such people for more than a specified time, local law enforcement faces no such constraints when dealing with individuals in an intervention environment, Downing says. In a department of 12,000—9,963 sworn officers and 3,000 civilians—the program represents a significant investment in preventing the “lone wolf” attacks that have become an ISIS hallmark.

The FBI, which has some 13,700 agents nationwide, sometimes “lacks the manpower to build off-ramps for individuals who have not mobilized to violence,” according to Downing. “As Boston, Orlando, and now Fort Lauderdale show, a partnership with the FBI can leverage the resources of 800,000 local law enforcement officials and help build a real safety net.”

Other local law-enforcement authorities are also exploring similar programs, knowing that protecting such soft targets as airport baggage areas is a tall order. With nearly 800 flights a day and 25 million passengers a year, the Fort Lauderdale airport already spends some $16 million, or roughly 20 percent of its operating budget, on the 116 people responsible for securing the 18,000-acre site and its 11,000 employees. Along with TSA and other federal agencies, the sheriff’s office has the lead in protecting such non-federally secured parts of airports as the parking and baggage areas of the county’s largest employer, which provides revenues of more than $2.3 billion a year.

Security at this and the nation’s other 5,000 major airports is a jurisdictional hodgepodge, which also complicates the security mission, counterterrorism specialists agree. The mayhem in Fort Lauderdale resembled the confusion at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport last summer when false reports of a terrorist attack triggered panic and a life-threatening stampede. Despite the Port Authority Police Department’s frequent drills and training, jurisdictional disputes and gaps in security coordination contributed to the chaos. “What we need to avoid panic situations at Kennedy and Los Angeles International airports is better communication to let travelers know what’s going on,” said Ray Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, who is now vice chairman of K2 Intelligence, the security firm.

Much is still unknown about Santiago’s attack, but one thing’s for sure: there is more than enough blame to go around and, hence, there will be no end to the finger-pointing and blame-shifting.     

Photo by Getty Images

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