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Former FBI Assistant Director On What Went Wrong With Tip About Florida Shooter


Weeks before last week's school shooting in Florida, a member of the public called the FBI about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. The caller warned about Cruz's weapons, his desire to kill people and his potential to carry out a school shooting. That call went to a center in West Virginia instead of a local field office, and the information never made it back to Florida. The FBI opened that call center about five years ago. Earlier, I spoke with Ron Hosko. He spent almost 30 years at the FBI and retired as assistant director in 2014. I asked him why the bureau switched to a centralized call center in the first place.

RON HOSKO: You had complaint agents being assigned to complaint duty. I was one of them in my younger days in the FBI. And you spent the day listening to complainants who wanted to share tips and clues. But what the FBI decided to do was try to economize and centralize, saving all that individual agent time in field offices and offset it with professional staff employees who were instructed about FBI jurisdiction, and violations and how to interface with the public - and so a good idea, but I'm sure right now being re-evaluated.

SHAPIRO: So do you think the underlying problem is that the call center was centralized in one place for the entire country? I mean, what is the flaw?

HOSKO: Today, we don't know. And I understand that the director has sent an inspection team up there to pull it apart and find out, is this a people problem? Is this a training problem? Is this a technology problem? This is a failure by the FBI. When specific, detailed information comes in - here, a school shooting, as tragic, as horrific as any school shooting is and can be, and this one was - that is not really the basis for FBI jurisdiction. This is a tragic, local murder 17 times over, but the FBI doesn't have a lead role. However, when you get information like this that is specific and is actionable, what you want to do is get that with all due haste to an investigative agency that that would cover the territory so they can take action.

SHAPIRO: If this system had worked the way it's supposed to, what would've happened after that call came into the West Virginia call center?

HOSKO: That - it would've been conveyed electronically or on the phone to the Miami office, and the Miami office could have taken it to the Parkland, Fla., Broward County authorities very quickly. Perhaps then it could've been married up with the numerous local calls that had occurred. This young man was flashing red, and some proactive actions should've occurred that may have stopped this.

SHAPIRO: I think many people can sympathize with the FBI missing a generalized tip about a violent neighbor that could mean any number of things. This tip was so specific, from the stockpiling of weapons, to the threats of violence, to even a school shooting specifically. It's really hard to see how that gets dropped.

HOSKO: It is. The FBI has - its jurisdiction is primarily federal. They act in a support role when it's - the crime is local, but that doesn't mean you do nothing when something comes in that's specific in the specificity that we're hearing about this threat. That requires the FBI to do something. And the question at hand today is, why did they do nothing?

SHAPIRO: Now what do you think the FBI needs to do to regain the public's trust?

HOSKO: Well, look, the FBI has to work every day to gain and maintain the public's trust. And the FBI has a global mission. Every day, thousands of agents are doing their job, trying to protect us from national security threats that is ISIS-inspired, al-Qaida-inspired. This is no doubt a momentous failure. But put in the broader perspective of what the FBI does - we ought to at least keep that in mind as we're evaluating this. These failures shouldn't happen, and it ought to have the director of the FBI looking hard at his organization and saying, what are these mistakes? What's causing them? Does somebody need to be fired? Does somebody need to be suspended? Does somebody need to be disciplined?

SHAPIRO: Ron Hosko, former FBI assistant director, now with the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. Thanks for joining us today.

HOSKO: Ari, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.