In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, lawmakers are demanding answers from the FBI. They want answers not only about the Tsarnaev brothers — Did they act alone? Why did they do it? — but also about our security and intelligence operations. Did the FBI and other security agencies fail to share information? Was the Russian “red flag” about Tamerlan given proper consideration? He triggered a U.S. Customs alert when he left for Russia, but no one knew when he came back.
As long as we don’t politicize them, these are good questions. While we don’t expect our security, intelligence or law enforcement organizations to be perfect, we do expect them to follow procedures, enforce regulations and focus on the signal-to-noise ratio — that is, pay attention to the giveaways, warning signs and red flags. We need to hold our elected officials accountable. We need to hold those who work for our government accountable.
After all, the Boston Marathon bombing killed three people and injured more than 250.
So I’m a bit perplexed — frustrated and angry, really — that so far, no one in Congress is calling for a hearing about the explosion in West, Texas. Fifteen people died, nearly 200 were injured, and a school and other buildings were damaged or destroyed over a 35-block area, but who holds the Department of Homeland Security responsible?
Yes, there’s an investigation — and, yes, the lawsuits have started. But where is the congressional (or media) outrage?
Don’t tell me that what happened in Boston was an “act of terror” and what happened in West was an “accident.” Adair Grain Inc. was storing ammonium nitrate. It’s a fertilizer. It’s also an oxidizing agent used in explosives, particularly improvised explosive devices — you know, what the Tsarnaev brothers turned a pressure cooker into? It’s raw material for a bomb, and it’s supposed to be regulated.
Adair Grain was storing 270 tons of the stuff — way more than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing. A security alert should have been triggered 1,350 times. But as Bloomberg News reports, the fertilizer plant hadn’t been inspected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulators since 1985. Why should there be an inspection when a security plan was filed with the federal government listing zero flammable chemicals within the plant’s perimeter? (Tell that to the residents of the nursing home who had to be evacuated.)
But somebody knew there was a problem at the plant. State inspectors had cited it numerous times for unsafe conditions. The company apparently treated the fines as just another cost of doing business.
Here’s where that “accountability thing” comes into the picture. Homeland Security says it didn’t even know about Adair Grain. The place stored 270 tons of an explosive used in IEDs — 1,350 times the amount that should have triggered a safety oversight inspection — and the DHS didn’t know about it?
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality knew about it, though, as far back as 2006. According to the records, so did other agencies, such as the Department of State Health Services, the state chemist’s office and possibly others. But no one talked about fire safety, regulations, emergency drills or other safeguards.
Here’s the point: We’re looking for terror in all the wrong places. Maybe not all the wrong places, but a lot of wrong places. We look for bombs in the shoes of little kids and old ladies, but not in a plant located next to a school and a retirement home — a plant that should have been regulated and inspected.
Maybe we should stop worrying about labels — “terror” or “accident” — and start worrying about actions. DHS inspected 1.5 billion shoes for bombs last year but didn’t monitor any of the 4,000 places where explosives that can make bombs are stored.
I know, focusing on what we can prevent, making sure our lawmakers put adequate regulations into place — and that they’re enforced — won’t be as sensational as reacting (and often overreacting) to random acts of violence. So the media probably won’t like it. But small mountains of explosives hidden in plain sight seem much more of a clear and present danger than Primigi pink leather Mary Janes.
Neglect, incompetence and “wink-wink” corruption endanger us much more than phantom fears. Terrorism is a real tactic, but we live with the risk of random acts of violence every day. We don’t call a car accident an act of terror, even if one driver has road rage. But we do — or should — investigate and hold the driver accountable.
That’s the key: accountability. At all levels, and in all sectors: Donald Adair (the fertilizer company’s owner), the agencies that didn’t see what they should have, the agencies that didn’t report what they should have.
We’ve got to get the regulations right, get them enforced and get government agencies to communicate. A little common sense (are you listening TSA?) wouldn’t hurt either.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.