It may be weeks or months before the FBI reveals exactly how it bungled ominous tips about Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.
But for many former FBI agents and law enforcement experts, enough evidence has already been made public to conclude the vaunted federal agency failed at basic detective work — and in multiple ways.
The most alarming warning, for example, didn’t just suggest Cruz was a likely school shooter but that he also could be influenced by the Islamic terror group ISIS, both glaring red flags for national security. But a specialist and supervisor at the FBI’s civilian call center in West Virginia didn’t pass the warning on to field agents in South Florida. At the very least, they might have coordinated with Broward County school and law enforcement officials to ensure that an officer knocked on the deeply troubled 19-year-old’s door and possibly stopped Cruz from killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“Oh my God!” Alfred LaManna, a retired South Florida FBI special agent, told the Miami Herald after reviewing a transcript of the tipster’s early January call.
“What gets me more than anything else … is the mere mention of ISIS and the fact that the tipster alleges his dress in one instance (is) as a potential ISIS recruit,” said LaManna, who spent most of his nearly 30-year FBI career investigating organized crime. “This, alone, should have sent up a red flag to check the guy out on that matter.”
Christopher Swecker, a former chief of the bureau’s Criminal Division, said that based on what’s known so far, the agency’s call center in Clarksburg, W.Va., should be accountable for “at least professional negligence and at worst incompetence.”
The ongoing and still unanswered questions about the FBI’s mishandling of the Cruz case, combined with similar scrutiny into missed warning signs by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, have given the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates fresh ammunition to push back against surging public support for tougher controls on military-style firearms, a movement led by young survivors of the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting.
“The NRA often looks for a scapegoat in mass shootings, but in this case they are accurately highlighting the failure of law enforcement,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law school professor, who is the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011, W.W. Norton).
“The Broward Sheriff’s office did an incredibly poor job following up on numerous reports of the shooter's violence and instability,” Winkler said in response to emailed questions from McClatchy. “Of course, mass shootings do not typically involve a failure of law enforcement. Even if law enforcement were better, we would still have mass shootings. In this incident, it is appropriate to focus on both the failure of law enforcement and the failure of our gun laws.”
The national hotline was established in 2012 by former FBI Director Robert Mueller to centralize a system in which tips went directly to agents at 56 field offices, who would then decide how to follow up.
During a briefing last week at the request of Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI disclosed that it did open a preliminary inquiry into Cruz after the tipster’s Jan. 5 call and also connected that tip to a September 2017 call alerting its Mississippi field office that a Nikolas Cruz had posted the words “I am going to be a professional school shooter” on YouTube.
But, bureau officials told aides to the Iowa Republican, the FBI specialist who took the Public Access Line call and a supervisor decided not to take further action and did not share the information with the Miami field office, which would normally pass it along to local law enforcement officials in South Florida.
A handful of former FBI agents contacted for reaction were appalled at the blunder. While any high-profile investigation is going to be the target of second-guessing, the handling of the Cruz tip has drawn unusually strong condemnation from the bureau’s retired establishment.
“If I was in Miami and received this tip, I would have jumped all over it,” said Gerard “Jerry” Forrester, another retired South Florida FBI special agent. “What struck me was the insistence of the complainant that something bad is going to happen, and she says she wants to get it off her chest.”
“You can tell this lady is telling the truth. With this information, the FBI [in South Florida] would have investigated it and at least alerted the school [district] and the Broward Sheriff’s Office.”
The tipster, a woman, identified Cruz by his full name, his age and where he lived in her January call to the FBI tipline. She then frantically warned about his mental instability, his arsenal of firearms, his posting of assault rifles on social media, his threats to kill himself and other people, and that “he’s so into ISIS,” the notorious Middle East terrorist group.
“I know he’s — he’s going to explode,” the unidentified tipster told the civilian intake specialist at the FBI’s call center, saying she feared he might shoot up a school.
Two days after the shooting spree, FBI Director Christopher Wray issued an embarrassing apology, revealing the failure and ordering the internal review on what went wrong and how to prevent similar failures in the future. In addition to that blunder, the FBI admitted that Mississippi agents failed to figure out a blogger’s tip about the YouTube comment in September in which Cruz said he was going to become a “professional school shooter.”
Nancy Savage, the executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, told the Herald that the call center’s botched handling of the January call was egregious.
“Just horrendous judgment is all I can say,” Savage said. “I know our members are mortified over the loss of life and the thought that the FBI might have played some part in being able to prevent that. But what actually went wrong has not been made public. I know the FBI is working to make sure they know all the particulars and will implement something so it does not happen again.”
Swecker, who briefly held the FBI’s No. 3 job on an acting basis before retiring in 2006, said “it’s important to know what the specialist documented in the way of a summary of the call, what research … was done by the specialist. It’s hard to tell whether this was a people or process breakdown. I suspect a combination of the two.”
Savage said multiple issues must be addressed to curb the seemingly endless spate of mass shootings in the United States, which stands out among developed countries for the deadly gun rampages that have killed hundreds of Americans in recent years, including massacres at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, an Orlando nightclub and a concert on the Las Vegas Strip.
For example, she said even if the tip had reached the Broward Sheriff’s Office, its deputies had few options. Broward Sheriff Scott Israel has repeatedly said that local law enforcement officers are “handcuffed” in such situations, referring to limitations under Florida law on their ability to hold people believed to be mentally unstable or to arrest people without enough evidence of a crime.
But a chorus of South Florida lawyers told the Herald that if county deputies had investigated Cruz before the Parkland shooting, they could have arrested him for his Instagram and YouTube postings threatening to kill classmates and shoot up a school in 2016 and 2017 while he was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Cruz’s threats to kill fellow teens could constitute aggravated cyberstalking, a felony under state law. Most important: If Cruz had been charged with aggravated cyberstalking, he couldn’t have legally possessed the weapon he used to kill 17 people. A condition of bond for felony stalking charges in Broward is the surrender of all firearms.
Cruz’s comment on the internet about wanting to become a “professional school shooter” could have been enough to charge him with a threat to injure another person under federal law.
Just horrendous judgment is all I can say. I know our members are mortified over the loss of life and the thought that the FBI might have played some part in being able to prevent that.
Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI
Since Cruz’s deadly attack, the GOP-led Florida legislative committees have moved quickly on measures to beef up funding for mental health care and school security, including arming teachers. Republican legislators also seem willing to raise from 18 to 21 the minimum age to buy a firearm and require a three-day waiting period for the bulk of gun purchases. But they refuse to consider an assault-style weapons ban sought by Democrats.
Savage, whose group takes no position on banning semi-automatic or assault weapons, said that step, or barring youths from buying any gun until they are 21, won't “solve the problems of these mass shootings” because there are other ways to obtain weapons through loopholes in the law, such as private sales with no background checks.
My initial reaction ... is that if nothing was done with the tip, considering the mention of ISIS, schools, firearms, desire to shoot people, money available to purchase guns and mental instability coming from what I surmise was a relative of Cruz, there was at least professional negligence and at worst incompetence on the part of the ‘intake specialist’ and his/her supervisor.
Chris Swecker, former acting FBI No. 3 official
“We can do a number of things to make our children safer and get schools that are hardened up,” she said. “But you’ve got churches that are targets, you’ve got malls that are targets, you’ve got college campuses. You can’t harden that. You get shooters up in a tower.”
Winkler, the UCLA law professor, highlighted the formidable public safety challenge in a nation with over 350 million guns.
“A determined killer, like the ones in Las Vegas and Parkland, will go to great lengths to find their weapons,” he wrote. “One measure that can help is a gun violence restraining order, which allows a judge to temporarily remove an unstable person's guns. Some mass shooters, like in Parkland, might have been stopped if friends and family members can seek a gun violence restraining order.”
“But perhaps more importantly, we should focus our efforts on bringing down the daily death toll from gun violence. Since the 17 died in Parkland, hundreds of Americans have died from guns.”