FBI admits 'protocols' not followed after caller reports school shooter owned gun, 'erratic behavior
In a rare admission, the FBI came forward on Friday acknowledging that their agents had received a call about the Parkland, Florida school shooter more than a month before this week's mass shooting, alerting them that the 19-year-old owned a gun, "desired to kill people" and was showing "erratic behavior" - and that they did not thing about it.
The announcement prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, to call on the FBI director to resign, saying his agency's inaction is "unacceptable."
Hours earlier, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a department news release that the proper protocols were not followed when they received the tip about Nikolas Cruz on Jan. 5. The news came as the first of the funerals were being held, for the 17 people Cruz is accused of killing on Tuesday, including those for Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, and 18-year-old Meadow Pollack.
“We are still investigating the facts," Wray said. "I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public. It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly."
He added: “We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy. All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe, and are relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”
According to the FBI, a "person close to Nikolas Cruz" contacted the FBI on Jan. 5 to report concerns about him. The caller provided information about "Cruz's gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting," the FBI said.
But nothing was done.
"Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life," the FBI said. "The information then should have been forwarded to the FBI Miami Field Office, where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken. We have determined that these protocols were not followed."
Wray added that the information was not provided to the Miami Field Office, and no further investigation was conducted.
At an afternoon news conference, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel also admitted something: About 20 "calls for service" had come in to his office about Cruz. He said they were "assorted calls" and they were not followed up on as some of the calls came from out of state and some didn't seem worthy. But he said he'd investigate and if he found any improper behavior by his deputies, he'd take the appropriate action.
The mass shooting at Cruz's former school, Stoneman Douglas High School, was one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
The Jan. 5 tip wasn't wasn't the first report about Cruz, who has not yet entered a plea to the 17 counts of premeditated murder stemming from the shooting, where he used an AR-15 to kill teachers and students.
Last fall, a Mississippi bail bondsman and video blogger noticed a comment on one of his YouTube videos that said, "I'm going to be a professional school shooter." He immediately reported it to YouTube and the FBI and the next day two agents came to his office to take a printout of the comment and ask him whether he knew anything about the person who posted it.
Although the commenter's username was "Nikolas Cruz" - the same name as the 19-year-old man who authorities say killed 17 people at his former high school on Wednesday - the FBI couldn't identify the poster, Robert Lasky, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Miami, said Thursday.
Federal agents interviewed the man who reported the comment and searched public records databases, actions in line with those done during an FBI assessment - the lowest level, least intrusive and most elementary stage of an FBI inquiry - but came up short. The FBI says it still hasn't conclusively linked the account to the alleged shooter.
It was the latest attack to raise questions about whether people who once caught the attention of law enforcement should have remained on the FBI's radar. In the last two years, a man who massacred 49 people at an Orlando nightclub, another who set off bombs in the streets of New York City and a third who gunned down travelers at a Florida airport, had each been looked at by federal agents but later determined not to warrant continued law enforcement scrutiny.
FBI assessments are routinely opened after agents receive a tip, which could be sparked by something as simple as noticing odd activity in a neighbor's garage or a classmate's comments. Agents routinely face a challenge of sifting through which of the tens of thousands of tips received every year - and more than 10,000 assessments that are opened - could yield a viable threat.
Had agents been able to confirm Cruz was the same person as the YouTube poster, they would have found dozens of photos of rifles, ammunition, targets filled with bullet holes, which likely would have led to a face-to-face interview. The FBI did not notify police in Florida about the post before the mass shooting.
"They owe us some more detail on what they did," retired FBI assistant director Ron Hosko told the Associated Press.
The questions come as the FBI is already under intense scrutiny and facing unprecedented attack from President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans, who have seized on what they say are signs of anti-Trump bias, particularly as it relates to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
But it's not clear the agency dropped the ball in this case, Hosko said.
"With anything that the FBI receives they are constrained to act based on what they have in front of them," said Hosko. "You have a random internet posting that suggests the person wants to do something, not that they are planning on doing something."
FBI guidelines meant to balance national security with civil liberties protections impose restrictions on the steps agents may take during the assessment phase.
Agents, for instance, may analyze information from government databases and open-source internet searches, and can conduct interviews during an assessment. But they cannot turn to more intrusive techniques, such as requesting a wiretap or internet communications, without higher levels of approval and a more solid basis to suspect a crime.
"It's a tricky situation because sometimes you get information regarding individuals and they may be just showing off, blustering," said Herbert Cousins Jr., a retired FBI special agent in charge.
A vague, uncorroborated threat alone may not be enough to proceed to the next level of investigation, said Jeffrey Ringel, a former FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task force supervisor who now works for the Soufan Group, a private security firm.
Many assessments are closed within days or weeks when the FBI concludes there's no criminal or national security threat, or basis for continued scrutiny. The system is meant to ensure that a person who has not broken the law does not remain under perpetual scrutiny on a mere hunch -- and that the FBI can reserve its scarce resources for true threats.
Had the video included an overt expression of allegiance toward a foreign terror group, for example, the FBI might have deployed additional tools, as counterterrorism is the agency's top priority. It also is federal crime to provide material support to organizations such as the Islamic State or al-Qaida.
Tips like the one that came in about the Florida gunman are among countless complaints that come into the FBI daily with varying degrees of specificity.
"How many of these do you expect the FBI to handle before it becomes the Federal Bureau of Complaints," said Hosko. "They could spend their entire workforce tracking down internet exchanges that are never going to go anywhere."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.