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The New Obama Administration Defense Of Police Militarization: The Boston Bombing

As changes to military-equipment programs stall out in D.C., administration officials are citing the 2013 terrorist attack. The complex case of the Boston Marathon response.

Posted on December 7, 2014, at 11:00 p.m. ET

A member of the SWAT team motions to a resident during the April, 2013 search for Dzhokar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

A member of the SWAT team motions to a resident during the April, 2013 search for Dzhokar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Massachusetts.

WASHINGTON — When Obama administration officials are asked why the administration hasn't sought to stop the military from sending combat gear to local police forces, they have a ready answer: the Boston Marathon bombing.

The April 15, 2013 bombing has been cited at least twice by top administration officials defending the programs that have drawn bipartisan criticism after heavily-armed police engaged unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. The manhunt that followed the terrorist attack, which killed three and injured hundreds, featured a massive law enforcement presence — and military-style equipment.

But at least one argument floated by administration officials — that military gear was critical in locating one of the two suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — raises questions about the purpose and effectiveness of military equipment.

The invocation of Boston comes after the collapse of legislative efforts to change federal programs that provide the equipment. Though President Obama has voiced skepticism about police using combat gear and has vowed new efforts to track how military hardware is used by police, the White House never signed on to efforts to end the programs. The administration continues to say they are a good idea, at least in theory, and that military hardware can be a valuable tool for local police.

The post-bombing images of Boston locked down by police-marked military vehicles and a coordinated federal-state response provide a best case scenario for proponents of federal programs that help cops by military hardware. What was so jarring in the streets of Ferguson in August — military-style armored vehicles rolling down urban streets with armored police officers poking out of them carrying heavy weaponry — was a source of comfort in the desperate hours after the Marathon bombings when the suspects were still at large. Critics of militarization say the practical application of military hardware by local police mostly mimics the Ferguson situation, with military-armed SWAT-style officers moving against largely minority populations.

Administration officials and Boston police credit hardware provided through federal grant programs for creating the conditions for a rapid, well-coordinated response to the bombings and treatment of the victims. At the same time, critics of the programs point out that at times has exaggerated the how helpful military technology was in Boston when it came to tracking down and capturing the bombers. This, essentially, is the roiling debate over police militarization in a nutshell: supporters say police need combat gear to do their jobs effectively, critics say that claim is made with little evidence to back it up. Traces of both arguments can be found in the administration's repeated citing of Boston in the militarization debate.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest referred to the marathon bombing when asked why the administration has not signed on with critics who want to end militarization programs.

"There are certain situations in which these kinds of programs have been useful and contributed significantly to public safety," Earnest said at a press briefing last Monday. "The best I think and probably most high-profile example that comes to mind is the use by the Boston Police Department of some military equipment in their response to the Boston bombing. That was equipment that was properly used and was done in a way that would both protect the community but also protect the law enforcement officers that were responding to the situation."

In Congressional testimony, federal and Boston officials have praised the programs that provide them with millions of dollars to buy military equipment, saying the armored vehicles helped created a feeling of security for police officers.

But a top Department of Homeland Security official also claimed that the military gear was the source of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's capture, in testimony at a September Senate hearing on militarization programs after the August protests in Ferguson. Brian Kamoie, the official at FEMA (a part of DHS) in charge of grant programs that help local cops buy military-style gear, defended the program by citing the use of a helicopter-mounted infrared sensor in Boston.

"Much of that equipment directly contributed to the apprehension of the surviving bombing suspect," Kamoie told a Senate Homeland Security subcommitee in his prepared opening statement on Sept. 9. "During the pursuit, Massachusetts State Police used a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera purchased with preparedness grant funds to search for, locate, and apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Further, the FLIR's ability to locate the suspect from a safe distance reduced the direct risk to law enforcement officers."

At the hearing, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn — one of the opponents of militarization in the Senate — pointed out a significant flaw in that story.

"[Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev was found because a guy went out to check his boat because he saw the end of it up," Coburn said. "It didn't have anything to do with money that we spent, it didn't have anything to do with anything other than he noticed it, and he was surprised by the fact that he found this guy in fetal position in his boat and called 911."

Coburn, who is retiring at the end of this month's lame duck session, entered into the record a Boston Globe article into to back up his version of events. Kamoie "seemed surprised," according to a New York Times writeup of the hearing.

"I look forward to reading that article," he told Coburn.

The Globe's reporting at the time pretty clearly backs up Coburn. The article he cited at the September hearing — published on Oct. 13, 2013 and headlined "Boat owner seeks to clarify record on Tsarnaev capture" — describes in great detail how Watertown, Massachusetts resident David Henneberry left his house after authorities lifted a curfew during the four-day manhunt for Tsarnaev, checked on a loose cover on his boat, parked on a trailer on his yard, and spotted Tsarnaev.

A Globe investigation into the Tsarnaev manhunt published in March of this year — an excerpt from a book on the bombing by two Globe reporters — describes how armored and heavily-armed police officers were everywhere. At one point, a military-style armored Bearcat vehicle was used in an attempt to tip over the boat the bombing suspect was hiding in. (The attempt failed.) The reporting also cites Henneberry as the source of Tsarnaev's capture.

The Obama administration stands by the centrality of the infrared camera, despite the Globe reporting.

"Following up on the tip from a home/boat owner, the Massachusetts state police used the FLIR system to see the heat signature of suspect #2 and detect movement as he hid beneath a tarp on a boat. This allowed police — from a safe distance — to confirm suspect #2's presence and evaluate the threat he posed," a Department of Homeland Security official told BuzzFeed News. "This facilitated both situational awareness and operational coordination. We believe, as do Massachusetts and Boston officials, that the FLIR camera was instrumental in the apprehension of the suspect and protected the safety of law enforcement officers engaged in the search."

An official did not respond directly to a question about whether Kamoie ever read the Globe article or not.

Police leaders have, by and large, been supportive of federal militarization programs, some of which provide millions in surplus military equipment ranging from filing cabinets to MRAPs to local police forces free of charge.

Boston police have also praised the DHS grant program and the equipment it purchased, specifically in a July 2013 Senate hearing on the response to the Boston bombings.

"Boston… received important technology that would not be possible without the federal funding," Edward Davis, then the Boston Police commissioner, told the Senate Homeland Security committee. "Command posts, armored vehicles, robots and other safety equipment contributed to the safety of my officers and other officers in the Boston area and the success of the investigation."

The Obama administration argues that training programs, communications gear, security drills, armored vehicles, and other efforts paid for by the federal grants helped Boston weather the bombing and prove the value of sharing military know-how and equipment with local police forces.

"We firmly believe that many of the capabilities demonstrated in Boston in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, including the apprehension of the suspects, were built or enhanced–and have been sustained–through the preparedness grant funding made available under the Homeland Security Grant Program, including the Urban Areas Security Initiative and the State Homeland Security Program," Department Of Homeland Security spokesperson Justin Greenberg told BuzzFeed News.

Massachusetts has received than more $990 million in federal preparedness grant funds since 2002, according to DHS. Boston alone received more than $415 million in federal grant money. Federal officials said on April 15, 2013, that money helped pay for emergency medical equipment specifically outfitted to deal with casualties from an attack like the bombing. Federal funding also paid for the chopper-mounted FLIR sensor as well as a $13.8 million worth of communications equipment to provide for interactions between various first responders. The funding also paid for a large-scale exercise that a DHS official said helped Boston first responders work out communications kinks not long before the system was put to the test after the bombs went off on the final steps of the Marathon.

Many critics of police militarization in Congress have backed legislation that wouldn't affect non-combat-style surplus Pentagon hardware (which accounts for the vast majority of surplus distributed under the Defense Department's so-called 1033 program) from being distributed to local police forces.

Conservatives like Coburn worry about the costs associated with federal grant programs, and question the need for expensive technology like the FLIR. Anti-militarization activists on the left and libertarian right have mostly focused their post-Ferguson efforts on 1033.

On Monday, the White House announced it would leave all those programs in place largely as they are now, though officials continue to publicly criticize militarized police responses and warn the tactics can disproportionately target minorities. For now, the administration has chosen to focus on better training for the use of military gear and data collection requirements to help track when — and against whom — combat-ready equipment is used by local police. A new militarization task force created by Obama this week promises to take a special look at how police relations with communities of color are affected by the use of military-style equipment and tactics.

The administration continues to argue the Boston Marathon bombing proves the value of programs demilitarization advocates criticize.

"The response by Massachusetts and Boston emergency response and law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing remains a sterling example of the value of these preparedness grant program," Greenberg said.