Some radical jihadists plotting to attack inside the United States will "unfortunately get through" the nation's counterterrorism efforts, a senior FBI official warned today as he defended his agency's handling of its review two years ago looking at the prime suspect in the weekend bombing spree around New York and New Jersey.
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"We will try and do as much as we can, but we will not be able to stop everything," FBI Executive Assistant Director Mike Steinbach said.
Elsewhere today, a top official with the New York Police Department, which has historically butted heads with the FBI, offered his own unwavering defense of the FBI's handling of the Ahmad Rahami case two years ago.
"It was handled to the extent that the law, the system and the guidelines that we operate under would allow," NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told a House panel.
The comments come one day after the FBI acknowledged it conducted a low-level review of Rahami two years ago, but found no reason to believe he posed a threat at the time.
A neighbor prompted the 2014 inquiry after a dispute at the Rahami home, telling authorities he heard the father call his son a "terrorist" and heard the father say Rahami's associates overseas may have been trying to procure explosives.
"People have somewhat of a misconception about our ability to put someone under surveillance [and] leave them there indefinitely," Miller, who heads his department’s counterterrorism and intelligence efforts, told the House Homeland Security Committee.
"It’s not realistic to say every time someone comes on the radar, you're going to be able to follow them ... for an extended period of time, while you have investigations that are on the front-burner involving people who are demonstrably dangerous."
The FBI’s Steinbach, speaking today at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, insisted that U.S. law and articulated "legal steps" dictate how far the FBI can go in evaluating the threat someone may pose.
"I can't just pick somebody out because of investigator intuition or a belief that this person's a bad person," Steinbach said. "That, unfortunately, is the world we live in. ... The American public, time and time again, has determined that they do not want us investigating everybody for as long as we want."
Steinbach also suggested the public doesn't understand the challenge posed by the sheer amount of threat-related information, including tens of thousands of initial reports and another 60,000 tips and clues each year.
"We have a tendency as a country to immediately kind of look at every single incident and say, 'How did we fail,' versus understanding the volume of the threat," Steinbach said.
Nevertheless, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., suggested the FBI could inform local police about even low-level assessments they conduct so "street cops" can be told to “keep your eyes and ears open on this guy in case you hear something about him.”
The NYPD’s Miller said he thought federal guidelines and his own department’s guidelines would allow such a move.
The FBI first became aware of Rahami in the summer of 2014, when local law enforcement contacted the agency's New Jersey field office about him, sources said.
"The FBI conducted internal database reviews, interagency checks, and multiple interviews -- none of which revealed ties to terrorism," the FBI said in a statement.
The agency also interviewed Rahami’s father, who told agents his son had traveled to Pakistan and was interacting with "bad people," according to sources, and added that his son had injured and beaten members of his immediate family.
Rahami's father later told the FBI, however, he didn't mean to suggest his son was a terrorist, but that he was hanging out with "undesirables," the U.S. official said.
The FBI never interviewed Rahami himself, and a grand jury declined to file charges related to the domestic dispute.
Miller noted that Rahami didn’t raise any more flags after the FBI’s 2014 review.
Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence official with the Treasury Department, now a fellow with the Washington Institute, said, "In many of these cases there will have been someone who said something, but the something wasn’t clear enough that a whole lot could be done.”
The FBI’s ability to assess potential terrorists came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after Florida native Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, killing 49 people and injuring scores more.
In May 2013, the FBI had obtained sufficient information to open a preliminary investigation into Mateen; co-workers told authorities that Mateen had made terrorism-related comments at work. But after 10 months of investigation, including two interviews with Mateen, the FBI determined there wasn’t enough information to indicate he was "possibly a terrorist," as FBI Director James Comey said after the Orlando attack.
Two months later, in July 2014, the FBI took another look at Mateen because his name "surfaced" in a separate terrorism investigation, Comey told reporters. Mateen was interviewed again, but authorities found no reason to continue tracking him.