A Time for Reckoning at the FBI

More than six months after a teenager armed with an AR-15 rifle gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this past March, the aftereffects of that tragedy continue to reverberate. While little has been accomplished on the federal level, several states — among them, Florida — have passed laws intended to tighten gun control.

The shooting has also brought some changes to the agency entrusted with a mission to try to protect the public. The FBI has long spread the message that “if you see something, say something.” But when it received two ominous tips at its national call center in West Virginia about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, prior to the attack, it failed to do anything about it.

An investigative report published this week by the Florida-based Sun Sentinel reveals that call-takers at the national FBI call center, who are classified as “customer-service representatives,” are among the FBI’s lowest-paid employees, despite serving as the first line of defense against killers and terrorists, while handling thousands of calls a day. It turns out that figuring out how these workers made key decisions, including the botched Cruz case, has proven to be impossible, because no one was required to document precisely what information was considered.

Furthermore, the most detailed tip about Cruz seems to have been ignored partly because an earlier tip, which received only a cursory investigation, had already been rejected.

The center that handles the tip line has a mammoth job to perform. An average of 3,540 calls and tips come into the center each day. The center has been inundated as social media has made it easy for anyone to spread a threat online.

A total of 142 civilians work in the center, handling calls and emails and reporting to 18 supervisors who are FBI agents.

The call-takers are hired at a starting salary of $33,394, well below the median income in West Virginia. The staff — many with no previous law enforcement experience — go through an eight-week training period. Their job is to screen tips and pass along the credible ones to a supervisor, who decides whether further action is called for.

Compounding the confusion in the Parkland case, by the time the call-taker and her supervisor who had handled the second tip were questioned about the call, six weeks had passed, and they gave conflicting accounts of why it was mishandled — each pointing the finger at the other.

To its credit, the FBI took responsibility for what happened and seems to have made a creditable effort to learn from this terrible mistake. The Sentinel reports that it decided to assign more call-takers and supervisors at the call center in Clarksburg, W.Va., step up training for staff and agents; hire contractors to process online tips; create a management team to review all calls about terrorism or threats to life; and re-examine tips received in the past couple of years and send any potentially useful information to field offices for follow-up.

Some FBI agents are now reportedly accusing the agency of having gone too far in the opposite direction. They are complaining of being forced to chase pointless tips in an overly cautious system that fears a repeat of the Cruz debacle.

However, whether the FBI has done enough — or too much — to rectify the screening process remains unclear, in large part because it has been reluctant to share details of precisely what went wrong with Congress.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) issued a blistering letter on Monday calling the situation unacceptable. He said committee staff had asked the FBI seven times for its final report detailing why it failed to prevent the shooting, and demanded that the FBI brief the committee by Sept. 14 at the latest and issue the report to the committee at least 48 hours ahead of the briefing.

“If we want to prevent future tragedy,” Grassley said in a written statement, “we must have an understanding of what mistakes may have led to the shooting in Parkland.”

The senator makes a very valid point. While no mortal can guarantee the prevention of a future tragedy, Congressional oversight plays a very important role in making sure that governmental agencies fulfil their responsibilities. It is imperative that the FBI gives a full report to Congress of precisely what happened — and precisely what is being done to fix it.