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Boston response nothing like 9/11

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BOSTON – A year after homemade bombs ripped through the Boston Marathon, state and federal officials have enacted virtually no policy changes in response to the attack, a dramatic departure from previous acts of terrorism that prompted waves of government action.

“There was a great deal of concern right after this happened,” said Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Now, people are focused on so many different issues.”

Washington’s formal response to the attack has been limited to a series of investigations and reports that call for improved cooperation between the federal government and local law enforcement. In the Massachusetts Statehouse, legislators have created a license plate to honor the victims, while considering modest proposals to reimburse local police departments involved in the frantic search for those behind the attack.

Despite symbolic pledges of support from elected officials across the nation on this week’s anniversary, there is little evidence of any significant impact on policy. Instead of allocating new federal resources, funding that helps cities prepare for terrorism may be reduced. And it’s unclear if Congress will adopt any legislative remedies to address perceived intelligence failures that leave cities vulnerable to so-called lone wolf strikes.

“This is still an ongoing threat. I don’t think there’s anybody in law enforcement that would say what happened in Boston couldn’t happen anywhere,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who testified before a congressional panel last year, calling for action.

But the politics of terrorism have changed significantly since Giuliani led his city’s response to the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago.

Polling suggests that terrorism barely registers among voter priorities – even in the months immediately after the April 15, 2013, attack that killed three and wounded more than 260 others gathered around the marathon finish line.

Experts also report that the limited response is due, in part, to the low number of deaths relative to previous terrorist attacks on American soil.

Al-Qaida operatives killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, and 168 died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Policymakers enacted an overwhelming legislative response to 9/11, creating a new federal agency, the Homeland Security Department, and sending a flood of money to help local officials across the country improve their ability to prevent and respond to a mass-casualty terrorist attack.

The changes improved anti-terrorism efforts at the state and federal level, which has already been credited with preventing some attacks in recent years and minimizing the loss of life in last spring’s Boston bombing. But the U.S. government has long feared a Boston Marathon-type attack that’s carried out by people motivated by ideology but not tied to any designated terrorist group.

“We see the horror of the Boston Marathon bombings, and you say to yourself, ‘We still have a long way to go,’ ” said Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Homeland Security Department and now a homeland security consultant. “I’m not convinced that this could not have been avoided.”

Several months before the bombing, Russian officials warned U.S. security officials that the accused bombers might be religious extremists. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police three days after the bombing, while his brother, Dzhokhar, is awaiting trial on 30 charges in federal court.

A report released late last month by the House Homeland Security Committee raised concerns about the lack of information sharing between local officials and federal authorities.

Voters appear to have little appetite for a renewed focus on national security after a decade in which anti-terrorism efforts – in addition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – have consumed tremendous public resources and attention. Changes in law and policy that could address preventing domestic “lone wolf” attackers would likely involve more surveillance of Americans, an issue that elected officials are reluctant to embrace following revelations that the National Security Agency collected phone records and emails of millions of U.S. citizens.

That leaves Keating largely alone as he crafts legislation he hopes will help avert future attacks. The second-term congressman plans to introduce a bill this year that would incorporate much of the Homeland Security Committee’s recent recommendations, which include expanded cooperation between federal and local law enforcement and improved screening of international travelers. He said he may introduce the legislation in parts, depending on the level of support from other lawmakers.

At the same time, Keating says, there are signs that the federal government may cut some of the grant programs that help cities like Boston prepare for terrorist attacks. He said he is working to avoid that, but as a relatively junior Democratic congressman in the Republican-led House, that task is not an easy one.

“Unfortunately, the interest level on a tragedy like this peaks when it occurs,” he said.

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