THE SUN SENTINEL
"How the FBI botched tips about the Parkland school shooter"
By Paula McMahon and Brittany Wallman, Sun Sentinel
29 AUGUST 2018
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The FBI's quest to protect the public - a job it bungled in the case of the Parkland school shooter - has long depended on low-paid, overworked employees who were evaluated partly on how quickly they disposed of tips from callers.
The FBI has spread the message that "if you see something, say something," but then it mishandled two ominous tips to its national call center about Nikolas Cruz, the teenager who later gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 rifle.
Both tips suggested that Cruz was a school shooter in the making, but neither was sent to agents in South Florida to check out.
The episode has exposed serious questions about how the FBI's call center operates, years after it was established to try to head off deadly trouble before it happened.
And it has left the FBI scrambling to plug holes that allowed Cruz to slip through despite warnings that he was a danger.
Theoretically, the national operation was supposed to free agents in the FBI's 56 field offices to focus on investigations, not sit in the office taking phone calls.
FBI bosses also wanted a cheaper and more effective way to analyze information at one location, spot trends and then forward tips to investigators.
But the South Florida Sun Sentinel has found:
- Call-takers, classified as "customer service representatives," are among the FBI's lowest-paid employees, despite serving as the first line of defense against killers and terrorists while handling thousands of calls a day.
- Figuring out how they made decisions, including the botched Cruz case, has been impossible because no one was required to document precisely what information was considered.
- The most-detailed tip about Cruz seems to have been ignored partly because an earlier tip, which received only a cursory investigation, had already been rejected.
- With Cruz, the confusion is compounded because the call-taker and her supervisor give conflicting accounts of why the second tip was mishandled - each pointing the finger at the other.
- Now, FBI agents say they're being forced to chase pointless tips in an overly cautious system that fears a repeat of the Cruz debacle.
Senior FBI officials have admitted the FBI "committed serious, grave errors" with the Cruz tips, but they called the mistakes "judgment errors."
"The FBI could have and should have done more to investigate the information it was provided prior to the shooting," the deputy director of the FBI, David Bowdich, said earlier this year during congressional hearings on the Parkland shooting.
"While we will never know if we could have prevented this tragedy, we clearly should have done more."
The FBI has since decided to assign more call-takers and supervisors at the call center in Clarksburg, W.Va.; step up training for staff and agents; hire contractors to process online tips; create a management team to review all calls about terrorism or threats to life; and re-examine tips received in the past couple of years and send any potentially useful information to field offices for follow-up.
FBI acting assistant director Jill Tyson outlined many of those changes in a letter Monday to U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
He provided a copy Tuesday to the Sun Sentinel.
Deutch has called repeatedly for the FBI to brief all victims' families about the improvements and to reveal whether any employee was disciplined - a fact the FBI has refused to discuss.
"A terrible mistake happened," said Deutch, whose district includes Parkland.
"They acknowledge it."
"We expect accountability."
Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, called the handling of the Cruz case "egregious."
She attributed it to inadequate staffing, failure to follow proper protocols and lack of experience by the call-taker and her supervisor, an FBI agent.
She considers the case a rare exception in a system that is overwhelmed with calls and emails, due to the explosion of social media and to the success of campaigns that encourage people to report suspicious behavior.
"They're doing phenomenal work at the call center and, personally, I think it's an improvement on what we had before," Savage said.
"A bad judgment call here on something so significant is a call to action for the FBI, and they're certainly taking it very seriously."
"They're fixing it."
The center that handles the tip line - known as the Public Access Line, or PAL - has a mammoth job to perform.
An average of 3,540 calls and tips come into the center each day.
The center has been inundated as social media has made it easy for anyone to spread a threat online.
A total of 142 civilians work in the center, handling calls and emails and reporting to 18 supervisors who are FBI agents.
The call-takers are hired at a starting salary of $33,394, well below the median income in West Virginia.
The staff - many with no previous law enforcement experience - go through an eight-week training period that includes getting useful information from callers, writing reports, searching FBI databases and understanding criminal violations.
Their job is to screen tips and pass along the credible ones to a supervisor, who decides whether further action is called for.
In the first six months of this year, the most recent figures available, the call-takers processed more than 296,787 calls and 344,142 emailed tips - or about 25 calls or emails per call-taker per day.
One of those employees took the first tip about Cruz less than five months before the Parkland shooting.
It came in through the FBI's online page on Sept. 25, 2017, submitted by a bail bondsman in Mississippi.
"I am going to be a professional school shooter," someone with the username "nikolas cruz" had commented on a YouTube video.
The information was correctly flagged and forwarded from the call center to the FBI's field office in Jackson, Miss.
An FBI agent and a local law enforcement officer, assigned to a counterterrorism task force, interviewed the tipster and took a copy of a screen shot the man had taken of Cruz's comment.
The investigators checked FBI databases and did online searches but decided that the true identity of the person who posted the comment could not be determined.
They closed their investigation 16 days later, on Oct. 11.
They did not ask Google, which owns YouTube, to voluntarily turn over information that could have been used to identify Cruz.
And they did not ask federal prosecutors to consider subpoenaing the information.
Less than three months later, on Jan. 5, a longtime friend of the Cruz family became so concerned about Cruz's posts on Instagram that she phoned the FBI call center.
For more than 13 minutes, the woman provided detailed information about Cruz's online postings, in which he said he planned to harm himself and others.
She said he had made comments about the Islamic State terrorist group; had bought multiple guns; had mutilated small animals; had the mental capacity of a 12- to 14-year-old; and was going to explode.
She had contacted local police, she said.
The woman gave the call-taker the name, address and phone number of the Parkland family, James and Kimberly Snead, who let Cruz move in with them in late November or early December after his mom had died.
The tipster also spelled out his Instagram usernames.
"I just want someone to know about this so they can look into it. ... I just know I have a clear conscience if he takes off and, and just starts shooting places up," the woman said on the call.
She also said she was concerned about his "getting into a school and just shooting the place up."
Under questioning at the congressional hearings shortly after the Parkland shootings, Bowdich, the deputy FBI director, acknowledged that investigators still don't know precisely what went wrong with the handling of the second tip.
After hanging up, the call-taker ran Cruz's name through several FBI databases and found he had no criminal record.
She also found the prior tip, submitted by the Mississippi man a couple of months earlier, which investigators had closed out.
That's where the information gets muddled.
When questioned after the Parkland shootings, the call-taker told investigators that she had presented the relevant information to her supervisor.
Based on what she told him, the agent told her to close the file as having "no lead value."
The tip was never forwarded to the FBI field office in Miramar for investigation.
"We still to this day don't, and I'm not sure we will ever, know how it was presented to the supervisor because we have two different recollections between those two employees," Bowdich, the deputy director, told legislators.
"They have two different recollections ... probably because of the volume of calls they're taking every day."
Worse, agents and workers were not required at the time to document how they made their decisions, so there were no records to show precisely what information was used to make the decision.
By the time the agent and worker were questioned about the call, shortly after the shooting, six weeks had passed.
Call-takers at the time were evaluated in part on how quickly they processed calls and the follow-up checks of databases and prior tips.
Bowdich said internal investigations are examining whether that standard caused call-takers to value speed over thoroughness.
Officials have declined to say whether they've changed the evaluation method.
Savage, from the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said the agency is tightening up protocols - such as documenting how decisions were made - to create more "fail-safe accountability systems."
Under questioning from legislators, Bowdich said the decision to close the first Cruz tip might have influenced the decision on the second one.
And, because the second caller said she had contacted the Broward Sheriff's Office, the agent may have inappropriately assumed that local law enforcement was handling it, he said.
In the letter to Deutch, the agency said it plans to assign an additional 12 agents and 50 civilians to the center's staff - adding to the current 18 supervisors and 142 civilians.
Deutch said he appreciated the FBI's improvements, but he said he will keep pushing for more information about how online and over-the-phone tips will be handled.
"When Americans see something and say something, law enforcement has to do something," Deutch said Tuesday.
The agency's reluctance to reveal information also drew the ire of Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who issued a blistering letter Monday calling the situation unacceptable.
Grassley said committee staff had asked the FBI seven times for its final report detailing why it failed to prevent the shooting.
He demanded that the FBI brief the committee by Sept. 14 at the latest and issue the report to the committee at least 48 hours ahead of the briefing.
"If we want to prevent future tragedy," Grassley said in a written statement, "we must have an understanding of what mistakes may have led to the shooting in Parkland."
In an interview in June, Joshua Skule, the FBI's executive assistant director for intelligence, said agents are continuing to look for ways they "can connect the dots faster while staying within the lines of what the laws provide."
The agency also is working on developing more effective ways to comb through the huge volume of social media posts for threats, he said.
"It's much broader than the single (Parkland) incident," Skule said.
"It's how we are going to move forward as an organization in handling tips such as this."
"It wouldn't be fair to focus on a single issue, knowing that there's a much broader issue."
"We have got to fix this today but also going into the future because the volume is not going to stop."
The call center handled more than 1.5 million phone calls and e-tips in 2017 - almost as many as the 1.8 million tips it received in the first five years it operated.
Only 2 percent of those tips - about 30,000 last year - are considered significant enough to be forwarded for investigation by FBI agents in local field offices.
The center sent more than 600 leads to the FBI in South Florida last year, and the number doubled in just the first six months of this year, when more than 1,300 tips were forwarded for further investigation, officials told the Sun Sentinel.
The missteps in the Cruz case have exposed how local agents had been left in the dark about important leads and how, even when the tips were forwarded, the investigations didn't always yield the kind of results the public expects.
Several current and former agents told the Sun Sentinel the reasons for setting up the call center were well-intended, allowing higher-paid agents to focus on investigations instead of answering phone calls.
They say there is no question the serious, specific tips about Cruz were bungled, but they also say that, since the Parkland shootings, agents are routinely sent scurrying on tips with little value.
"Nobody wants to be the agent or the call-taker who messed up the warning about the school shooting, so we spend a lot of time following up on these tips about some kid or some co-worker who made a vague, dumb post on social media," said one South Florida agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment for the agency.
"Even if the call center people had sent the Cruz tips to us, we'd have gone and talked to him and if he'd told us he was just kidding around, we couldn't have done anything to him - until he did what he did."
The FBI supervisor on duty should have had his "hair on fire" given the troubling and specific details the caller shared about Cruz, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said during one of the congressional hearings.
Stephen L. Morris, a former FBI agent who was involved in establishing the public access line, was reluctant to comment about the Cruz case.
But he said: "Putting myself in that position ... I really struggle with believing an agent hearing that set of facts would even think that it was an iffy case or a close call."
"Even the most junior, green agent is going to send that out to the field office for investigation."
Call-takers also have to deal with a huge percentage of callers who have no good reason for calling the FBI: "people venting about things they've seen on news; people calling because they didn't get their Social Security check; people calling because they think their local fire department didn't act as responsively as they should have."
But Morris said the call center is still more efficient than the old system.
The problems identified by the Parkland missteps can be fixed, he said.
"Despite the criticism and the Monday-morning quarterbacking, overall, the system is an effective one," Morris said.
"It was a human error."
"I don't believe it was a breakdown in policies or processes."
(Staff writers Stephen Hobbs and Skyler Swisher contributed to this report.)
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