DEBORAH AMOS: So if communities can help curb the most common kind of gun violence, perhaps they can do the same for the rarest kind, mass shootings. The FBI hopes so because the Bureau is hamstrung when it comes to people like Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. The FBI investigated him twice, and he just didn’t fit the profile of a terrorist. Director James Comey, speaking a day after the Orlando massacre.
FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: We’re also going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently. So far, the honest answer is I don’t think so.
DEBORAH AMOS: When someone doesn't check all the FBI's terrorist boxes but still exhibits really troubling behavior, what’s next? Right now, there's a dead end. People are worried about this, people like Matthew Levitt who has worked on counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the State Department and at the FBI.
MATTHEW LEVITT: What the FBI found was an individual who had experienced workplace discrimination and decided to push back by claiming affiliation with terrorist groups. They found out that, actually, he didn't belong to a terrorist group. This was someone who was talking bravado. There was not only no law that had been violated, but there wasn't enough to justify continuing this as an intelligence case, so they appropriately closed the case.
DEBORAH AMOS: This was a young man who frightened people at his work. A man who knew him well, Mohammed Malik, reported to the FBI that he was watching Awlaki videos, and Awlaki is the American radical who was killed in Yemen but is still popular among young people who are looking out to see if ISIS is for them. If you're watching Awklaki videos, then that’s a step.
MATTHEW LEVITT: Depending on the context. I’m a counterterrorism researcher. I watch Awlaki videos. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily the trigger. Sometimes the FBI will say, we’ve checked the boxes and there’s not enough to continue an investigation, and that's appropriate, so long as you're then handing things off to somebody else to continue looking at this individual from a social cohesion perspective, a mental health perspective. It can't be FBI or nothing.
That’s why the FBI is pushing an effort right now to create what they're calling SRCs, shared responsibility committees, local community actors, local police, run by mental health experts, social workers, teachers, maybe have participation from other federal government agencies, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, to be able to pick up the ball based on these ongoing disturbing but protected behaviors.
DEBORAH AMOS: Can you talk about models where law enforcement and community organizations are starting to work together, and how do they work?
MATTHEW LEVITT: There are three pilot projects right now in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston. Each is somewhat different, but one of the commonalities is trying to develop programs to identify people, hand them off to the appropriate competent authorities, experts – doctors or what have you - and off ramp them away from the ideology or the mental health issue.
DEBORAH AMOS: How would that have worked in Mateen’s case?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, theoretically, when a member of his community informed law enforcement of their concerns about him, when the local police shared their concerns about him at the time that they moved him from being a security guard at the courthouse, perhaps when he was dismissed from the correctional authority school, imagine if mental health or other experts had intervened and had helped him walk through the history of being taunted as someone who is overweight, taunted by being one of the few Afghan or Muslim people in his community, possibly sexual identity questions, imagine if those things had been dealt with, would he still have snapped?
DEBORAH AMOS: It, it does raise though some interesting questions. One is privacy. We've already seen in two cases, psychiatrists, in the case in Colorado, and also in the German pilot who flew a plane into the side of a mountain, in both cases their psychiatrists knew that these were dangerous people, but because of privacy laws they couldn't report it. This also applies to social workers. How do you ensure privacy, at the same time ensuring that people who are dangerous are appropriately reported?
MATTHEW LEVITT: It’s a very important question that is beyond my competency. What I can tell you is that there are people who are already thinking this through, and psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and there are situations in which you are able and, in some cases, even are required to report behavior to authorities. That's only one area that has to be worked out, and there are others. Among the more complicated are insurance questions. Let’s say you're one of these community organizations and you work with someone and you help them address the issues that were causing them angst and everything is fine for say five years, and then something happens in the international environment or in their personal environment that causes new powerful grievances, and they get either re-radicalized or radicalized on something new and, God forbid, hurt somebody? Can the family members of the new victim sue the people who worked on de-radicalizing this individual several years earlier?
DEBORAH AMOS: Can we also talk about, you know, the dangers of thought police. I mean, it’s one thing to see a war in the Middle East on television and jump up and be angry, and it's another thing to take action. You don't want to turn community groups or even the FBI into thought police, so how do you know where that line is?
MATTHEW LEVITT: The whole purpose of this is to prevent the FBI from becoming thought police, and it’s the reason the FBI is pushing this. They don’t want to be in this space. To the extent people think that they're being thought police, it’s going to be very hard for them to work in these communities. One of the whole purposes here is to bridge that gap. But we have to do everything within our power to put in place systems and procedures to catch as many of these instances as possible. And we can do better.
DEBORAH AMOS: Matt, thanks very much.
MATTHEW LEVITT: Thanks for having me.
DEBORAH AMOS: Matthew Levitt is director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Comin’ up, humans are biased and they rush to judgment. That’s why we have data. Too bad that doesn’t work either.