Did FBI investigators miss their chance to prevent the Florida school shooting?

A deadly attack at a Florida high school Wednesday is raising concerns about whether the FBI missed potential warning signs that might have prevented the shooting, and whether people who have caught the attention of law enforcement in the past should remain on their radar.

In the last two years, a man who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, another accused of setting off bombs in the streets of New York City, and a third charged in a deadly shooting at a Florida airport were under the radar of federal agents, but later it was determined they didn’t warrant continued law enforcement scrutiny.

On Thursday, the 19-year-old accused of using a semi-automatic rifle to kill 17 people at at the Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla., confessed to carrying out one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings, according to a sheriff’s department report.

It appears Nikolas Cruz had been flagged as a concern before.

‘I’m going to be a professional shooter’

As early as last fall, a bail bondsman-video blogger in the U.S. noticed a comment on a YouTube video that said, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The blogger immediately reported it to YouTube and the FBI.

The next day, two agents came to his office to take a printout of the comment and ask him whether he knew anything about the person who posted it.

cruz florida shooting guns

This photo on the Instagram account of Nikolas Cruz shows weapons lying on a bed. Cruz was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder a day after a school schooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Instagram/Associated Press)

The username on the comment was “Nikolas Cruz” — the same name as the 19-year-old accused of opening fire at his former high school on Wednesday — but the FBI couldn’t identify the poster, Robert Lasky, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Miami, said Thursday.

Federal agents interviewed the bondsman who reported the comment and searched public records databases, actions in line with those done during an FBI assessment — the lowest level, least intrusive and most elementary stage of an FBI inquiry. But they came up short, and the FBI says it still hasn’t conclusively linked the account to the alleged shooter.

FBI assessments are routinely opened after agents receive a tip, which could be sparked by something as simple as noticing odd activity in a neighbour’s garage or a classmate’s comments.

Tens of thousands of tips a year

Agents routinely face a challenge of sifting through which of the tens of thousands of tips received every year — and more than 10,000 assessments that are opened — could yield a viable threat.

Had agents been able to confirm Cruz was the same person as the YouTube poster, they would have found dozens of photos of rifles, ammunition, targets filled with bullet holes, which likely would have led to a face-to-face interview. The FBI did not notify police in Florida about the post before the mass shooting.

‘With anything that the FBI receives, they are constrained to act based on what they have in front of them.’– Ron Hosko, retired FBI assistant director  

“They [agents] owe us some more detail on what they did,” retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko said. 

The questions come as the FBI is already under intense scrutiny and facing unprecedented attack from President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans, who have seized on what they say are signs of anti-Trump bias, particularly as it relates to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

But it’s not clear the agency dropped the ball in the Florida shooting case, Hosko said.

“With anything that the FBI receives, they are constrained to act based on what they have in front of them,” said Hosko.

“You have a random internet posting that suggests the person wants to do something, not that they are planning on doing something.”

Balancing national security with civil liberties

FBI guidelines that are meant to balance national security with civil liberties protections impose restrictions on the steps agents may take during the assessment phase.

Agents, for instance, may analyze information from government databases and open-source internet searches, and can conduct interviews during an assessment. But they cannot turn to more intrusive techniques, such as requesting a wiretap or internet communications, without higher levels of approval and a more solid basis to suspect a crime. 

Officials are also investigating whether authorities missed other warning signs about Cruz’s potentially violent nature.

Dramatic video shows terrifying moments as shots ring out in Florida school0:41

He had been expelled from the school for “disciplinary reasons,” said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who said he did not know the specifics.

One student said Cruz had been abusive to his ex-girlfriend and his expulsion was over a fight with her new boyfriend.

Math teacher Jim Gard told the Miami Herald that Cruz may have been identified as a potential threat before Wednesday’s attack. Gard believes the school had sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz should not be allowed on campus with a backpack.

“It’s a tricky situation because sometimes you get information regarding individuals and they may be just showing off, blustering,” said Herbert Cousins Jr., a retired FBI special agent in charge. 

‘Federal Bureau of Complaints?’

A vague, uncorroborated threat alone may not be enough to proceed to the next level of investigation, according to Jeffrey Ringel, a former FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task force supervisor who works for the Soufan Group, a private security firm. 

Many assessments are closed within days or weeks when the FBI concludes there’s no criminal or national security threat, or basis for continued scrutiny. The system is meant to ensure that a person who has not broken the law does not remain under perpetual scrutiny on a mere hunch — and that the FBI can reserve its scarce resources for true threats. 

Had Cruz made an overt expression of allegiance toward a foreign terror group, for example, the FBI might have deployed additional tools, as counter-terrorism is the agency’s top priority, and it is a federal crime to provide material support to organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or al-Qaeda. 

APTOPIX School Shooting Florida

About 1,000 people gathered Thursday night at a vigil to remember the shooting victims. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Tips like the one that came in about Cruz are among countless complaints that come into the FBI daily with varying degrees of specificity. 

“How many of these do you expect the FBI to handle before it becomes the Federal Bureau of Complaints?” asked Hosko. “They could spend their entire workforce tracking down internet exchanges that never going to go anywhere.”

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