FBI call center: Where an ominous tip about a suspected school shooter went to die

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Robert Mueller had barely taken over as FBI director in 2001 when the Sept. 11 terror attacks confronted him with the daunting task of remolding the storied crime-fighting agency into a force against terrorism.

Mueller — alarmed after the terrorist assaults exposed woeful information-sharing among federal and state agencies — pushed for a new and more efficient clearing house for handling criminal leads. The result: A national FBI hotline in a single call center to replace the traditional system of special agents collecting tips in dozens of regional offices.

The Public Access Line — housed in a FBI high-tech hub in the hills of West Virginia and operated by more than 100 civilian analysts — is ironically now under scrutiny by the bureau itself: A call center operator failed to flag an ominous tip received in early January about a South Florida teenager. Nikolas Cruz later murdered 17 people at a Parkland high school with an assault-style rifle a month later on Valentine’s Day.

The caller, identified as someone close to the Parkland shooter, described Cruz as a dangerous gun owner who posted disturbing statements and images of rifles on social media with the potential to shoot up a school.

On Friday, McClatchy obtained a transcript of the tipster’s Jan. 5 phone conversation with a call center analyst. The caller, a woman, said she was worried about Cruz “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.” She said he is 18 but “he’s got the mental capacity of a 12- to 14-year-old. … He started off saying he wanted to kill himself. … And then just recently, now he has switched it to he wants to kill people.”

“I know he is going to explode,” the unidentified woman said. “It’s alarming to see these pictures and to know what he’s capable of doing and what could happen.”

Swecker

Chris Swecker, who briefly held the FBI’s No. 3 job on an acting basis before retiring in 2006, is shown discussing an independent review of practices at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in 2010.

Jim R. Bounds AP

The alarming tip was never sent to the FBI’s South Florida field office. Now, critics from within and outside the bureau believe the colossal mistake, whoever is to blame, exposes serious flaws in the way the bureau runs its national tip line. Established in 2012, the FBI’s center dealt with more than 1.4 million complaints — half calls, half emails — about suspected criminal activity last year. Between 20,000 and 30,000 of those were deemed valuable enough by bureau staff to pass along to FBI field offices or other law enforcement agencies for further investigation.

Republican members of Congress are demanding answers about the bureau’s bungling of the Cruz tip. The scrutiny comes in a politically heated climate with Mueller, now a Justice Department special counsel, and FBI agents investigating possible Russian collaboration with President Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 presidential election.

The FBI was not the only law enforcement agency to commit communication and investigative blunders before the Feb. 14 Parkland school massacre. The Broward Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the investigation into the 17 murders, also failed to follow up on several tips like the one received in January by the FBI.

‘Maddening’ system

Troubled by the mishandling of the Cruz tip, a former top FBI official said he phoned the bureau’s call center and found its automated voice-answering system “maddening.”

“The question is, does consolidating all these calls into some catacomb up in West Virginia make it too sterile, turning it into a call center where analysts are fielding phone calls without investigative experience?” asked Chris Swecker, who held the FBI’s No. 3 job on an acting basis before retiring in 2006. “They don’t have context and the background to recognize the urgency between each phone call.”

Swecker said he’s confident that new FBI Director Christopher Wray and his aides will quickly diagnose and fix any weaknesses leading to the bureau’s inaction on the Cruz warning.

“I think we’ll all find out probably what we all suspect: that somebody took a call and did not attach sufficient importance and urgency to it,” Swecker said. He said Wray and his acting deputy, veteran agent David Bowdich, will have to decide whether it’s “an individual breakdown or a systemic breakdown.”

Other critics of the FBI’s national call center — which was set up in a central location to help coordinate information sharing and relieve field agents of vetting millions of tips to 56 regional offices nationwide — say the system is flawed because teams of civilians are making critical initial judgments about leads without any criminal context or law enforcement training.

FBI Director Christopher Wray

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a hearing focusing on global threats on Feb. 13 in Washington, D.C., the day before a South Florida 19-year-old fatally shot 17 students and faculty at a Parkland high school.

Olivier Douliery TNS

“The call center should be abolished after this screw-up,” said a retired FBI special agent in South Florida, who did not want to be identified. “It would be more effective if it went back to the way it was” with field agents gathering and evaluating the tips from the public and then deciding whether to pursue them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that the Cruz information provided by the tipster in early January “should have been assessed as a potential threat to life” and been forwarded to South Florida federal agents. Wray issued a strong mea culpa.

“I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public,” Wray said in a statement issued a week ago. “It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly.”

Swecker, who spent eight years of a 24-year FBI career in the bureau’s Miami field office, lived in Coral Springs, just a few miles from the scene of the murderous Valentine’s Day shooting rampage by the troubled former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Now living in North Carolina and representing victims of financial crimes, he said he phoned an FBI field office on behalf of a client on Wednesday and was routed him to an automated voice-mail system.

I just think they ought to have a prompt that says, ‘If you have information concerning a threat of violence, or a violent act, hit 1 and you’ll get a live agent right now – boom – in the (FBI) field office. Or, at least it’ll flash into a line in West Virginia where a more experienced analyst would take the call, or even an agent would take the call.

Former top FBI official Chris Swecker

“You get seven or eight prompts,” he said. “You’ve got to be very patient and listen to each prompt. None of them says, ‘Is there a threat of violence? If there’s a threat of violence press 1.’ That ought to be the first thing that comes up.”

Swecker said he waited until he finally got a prompt asking if he had a crime to report, pushed that button and was switched to the centralized call center in Clarksburg, West Virgina, where the FBI operates the Public Access Line in its Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

“I just think they ought to have a prompt that says, ‘If you have information concerning a threat of violence, or a violent act, hit 1 and you’ll get a live agent right now – boom – in the (FBI) field office. Or, at least it’ll flash into a line in West Virginia where a more experienced analyst would take the call, or even an agent would take the call. I’m just saying there needs to be a prioritization of these types of tips.”

Numerous critics

Swecker said he’s been in touch with a number of former FBI agents who share his concern.

“A lot of agents think that this type of breakdown is either a training issue or an issue of not having the requisite skills and experience and the requisite process in place – somewhere,” he said. “There should have been someone with enough experience or a process built in that says, when you get this type of information, it gets handled differently than the last 10 calls you got. You’ve got to have recognition and judgment that this was a very important call. There’s a threat of violence. It’s a school. There’s about 3 checks there that you say, ‘Oh oh. Elevate.’ ”

Swecker said if he were still in his job as acting executive assistant director, where his broad duties included overseeing the FBI division that now includes the six-year-old call center, “I would have them address the question of whether this needs to go back out to the field offices, where an agent can handle calls. The question is, how you harvest all that intelligence and get it where you connect all the dots like after 9/11.”

I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public.

FBI Director Christopher Wray

The mishandled call center warning came after a Mississippi man informed the FBI in September of a YouTube comment on his video posting that stated: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The comment was posted by someone with the handle name “nikolas cruz.”

But Ben Bennight, a bail bondsman in Mississippi who regularly posts information about crime on his own YouTube channel, did not call the bureau’s national call center. He tried to reach the FBI’s central tip line by email. He took a screen shot of the YouTube comment by Cruz and sent it to “tips.fbi.gov,” an email address he found online. It bounced back.

So, Bennight said he called FBI agents at the local field office in Mississippi and left a message. The following day, two agents went to his office and interviewed him. They took copies of his screen shot of the offensive comment, which by then was removed from YouTube. Bennight said he knew nothing of the poster’s identity or whereabouts.

FBI officials and the Jackson field office confirmed that, after database, Internet and public domain searches, federal agents in Mississippi were unable to match the disturbing comment by “nikolas cruz” with anybody by that name, including the South Florida teenager who would later be charged in the Parkland school massacre. Again, the Miami field office was never informed of the potential warning.

On Friday, more details of the FBI’s Mississippi mishap surfaced when the bureau briefed congressional staffers at the request of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on how it handled warnings about Cruz. The staffers were told: the FBI opened a counterterrorism lead after the September 2017 YouTube posting and closed that inquiry on Oct. 11 because it couldn’t positively identify “nikolas cruz.”

After the Parkland school shootings, the FBI reached out to YouTube’s owner, Google, and confirmed that Cruz posted the comment, the staffers were told. Google reported that the threatening comment was marked as spam and removed by the owner of the video shortly after it was posted and therefore it wasn’t investigated further. To mark such a comment, YouTube users must choose between sexually explicit material, graphic violence, hate speech, harassment or spam.

Because it was flagged as spam, it was not further scrutinized by Google for potential referral to law enforcement. There is no current option for “threat of violence.”

Google said that if the FBI had asked, the company could have provided information in September to help confirm the identity and location of the YouTube commenter on an emergency basis — or through a “legal process,” presumably meaning in response to a subpoena. In other words, the FBI agents in Mississippi didn’t issue a subpoena to Google seeking the internet address and physical location of the commentator “nikolas cruz.”

Miami Herald staff writer Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.


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