Technology Could Favor Investigators In Boston Attack

Apr 15, 2013
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Well, joining us now - for real, this time - Bryan Cunningham, a former CIA officer, who was also a deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council. And I want you to put us in the shoes of the investigators, at this moment. What would be their top priorities; what would they be looking for?

BRYAN CUNNINGHAM: Well, of course, as the victims, and the people of Boston - and of course, all our thoughts and prayers are with them - are just worried about being safe and going - finding their loved ones, the investigators - federal and state and local law enforcement and intelligence officers - are going to have a couple of priorities in the immediate aftermath. Obviously, the first one is to deal with the injured; make the location safe. The second one - and these are going to be pursued pretty much simultaneously - is to figure out if the attack is over; locate and disarm other devices, determine if there's other threats locally.

And one of the things we always worry about is the kind of multiple-staged attacks that happened on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq; where the initial attacks actually were primarily to lure in first-responders for a larger attack. Looks like, mercifully, that did not happen in this case. But...

SIEGEL: But as investigators are doing all that, are they - can they begin, and are they simultaneously gathering accounts from the witnesses and looking at material evidence and looking at pictures, to try to figure out who did this?

CUNNINGHAM: They will be, both from the standpoint, Robert, of figuring out if there's follow-on attacks, catching the people who did this; but also from a law-enforcement perspective of trying to be sure that they can prove that in court, in the future.

We actually, in this case, have three big advantages that you don't have a lot of time in these kind of incidents. One, because the marathon is such a big iconic event, we already would have had an incident command center and process in place in Boston with most of the right people there. Two, apparently, according to reporting, we've recovered one or more devices intact, which gives us a huge investigatory leg up. And three, there's just orders of magnitude more data available and software to analyze it quickly than even five years ago - fixed cameras, squad car videos, automatic license plate readers.

Everybody's phone, of course, now has a video camera - and lots of information about cellphone data, cellphone calling records. For example, if these devices were detonated by cellphone, they'll be very quickly able to make a lot of investigative headway out of analyzing all of that data that just wasn't around certainly at the time in 9/11.

SIEGEL: So are you saying that technological environment these days favors the investigators? It gives them some advantages. I just want to take the one hypothetical in our last minute here. If, indeed, there are devices that have been found that were not detonated, what do you look for? What is - what can that tell you about who made the bombs and who's responsible?

CUNNINGHAM: Immediately, you can determine the sophistication level of the attackers, which may tell you something about whether this was foreign or domestic. In addition, for organized foreign groups, bomb makers typically have signatures - the way they do the wiring, the kind of explosives they use, the way things are put together. And the government and our allies have become very sophisticated at being able to very rapidly link those back to particular individuals and groups. As I said, the advantage here is we don't have to reconstruct the devices. We have one intact.

SIEGEL: Well, Bryan Cunningham, thanks a lot for walking us through that scenario.

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Bryan Cunningham, ex-CIA, used to be deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council back in the days of Condoleezza Rice. Melissa? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.