By Karen Zautyk
Following the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon last week, one Nutley official could be found all over the airwaves. Being interviewed on this network or that was Commissioner Steven Rogers, director of the township’s Department of Public Affairs.
You might wonder why, if you’re not from Nutley. It’s because Rogers also happens to be an intelligence expert with unique insight into terrorists and the mayhem they wish to perpetrate.
Rogers spent 38 years as a member of the Nutley Police Department, retiring in 2011 as detective lieutenant and commander of the Detective Bureau. But during his police career, he was also a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, and when the Iraqi war began, he was mobilized and took a military leave from the police force.
From 2001 to 2003, he served in military intelligence in Colorado, with the U.S. Northern Command in Norfolk, Va., and at FBI headquarters in Washington.
Then, from 2003 to 2005, he was a senior military intelligence officer assigned to the National Joint Terrorism Task Force, Office of Naval Intelligence, in Washington, D.C.
The gentleman has his credentials.
We interviewed him initially midweek, a couple of days after the bombings, and spoke with him again as the saga continued to unfold, culminating Friday in the death of suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the daylong manhunt for and eventual apprehension of the other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Rogers is among those who believe Dzhokhar should be treated as an enemy combatant. That definition, we learned, can indeed be applied to an American citizen, if that individual takes up arms against the United States.
“I am glad they took him alive,” Rogers said. “This was of paramount importance.”
He also expressed relief at the fact that the Watertown, Mass., homeowner who spotted the suspect in his boat “did not take matters into his own hands, but called 911.”
While the 19-year-old was on the run, “he was desperate, with nothing to lose.”
Contrary to some other experts, Rogers noted, his “guess is that they [the Tsarnaev brothers] weren’t trained” in terror tactics. “For example, they appeared to have no escape plan.” Add to that the fact that they were readily caught on security cameras and that Dzhokhar did not mask his face with sunglasses and wore that white baseball cap, on backwards, which made him stand out in the crowd.
In our initial interview, long before any potential suspects had been identified, Rogers told us, “Based on a knowledge of how Al Qaeda operates, my first instinct is that this [the bombing] was domestic. But I don’t believe the individual belonged to a domestic terrorist organization. I believe it’s a lone wolf.” He also said he thought the bomber was a college student–which turned out to be spot on.
At the end of the week, he stated, “I still believe these guys were radicalized here in the U.S. and that they had no foreign or domestic terrorist connection.”
No domestic or foreign group has yet laid claim to the terrorism and the explosives used “were not sophisticated devices — you can get the instructions over the Internet.”
Rogers noted that if it turns out the Tsarnaevs did have some group link, the question still remains, “Did the group sanction this?”
In our earlier talk, Rogers spoke of the “giant collage” of evidence that had to be collected and put together — and, once a person of interest was identified, law enforcement “will then reach out through TV to the citizens.” Which is what happened later in the week with the release of the suspects’ photos by the FBI.
In any terror investigation, and in preventing acts of terror, he said, “the best resource is the extended eyes and ears of the public.”
In other words, if you see something, say something. Or if you hear something, some odd conversation perhaps. “If something strikes you, make that call,” he said. Don’t worry about “bothering” authorities; in this post-9/11 world, the public needs to remain vigilant.
“We (the investigators) have the whole picture, so that little bit of information John Q. Public has can make or break the case,” Rogers said.
Rogers is also invested in encouraging local law enforcement to focus on potential terrorism. When he was with the Nutley PD, he established an intelligence bureau in the department. “Every police department in the country should have an intelligence bureau,” he said, but he admitted that the current reality is that “police departments are strapped and have a manpower problem.”
Still, he said, “a simple traffic stop can lead to something very significant.”
“Police officers need to be trained to look for certain things that can be of assistance in the war on terror.”
As for the drama in Boston, Rogers talked a bit about “lessons learned.”
Citing erroneous news reports during the week, including the purported early arrest of a suspect when no arrest had occurred and word of a search for a certain car in Connecticut, when there was no search, Rogers said, “Somebody wanted to give the ‘scoop’ to a particular news organization, and they ran with it.”
Rule No. 1 in cases like Boston: “Political leaders and the media should never disseminate information coming from low-level law enforcement or low-level officials. The only credible information will come from the highest-ranking law enforcement conducting the investigation, the lead investigative agency, in this case, the FBI.”
As for the continuing war against terror, he said, “Rest assured that we’re in good hands. The FBI and the other intelligence agencies in this nation are the best in the world.”
Rogers also had high praise for all the Massachusetts law enforcement officers, terming the job they did “extraordinary.”
And noting the crowds that lined the streets in Watertown and Boston, applauding and cheering the police after the suspect was taken into custody, he said, “That’s the American spirit. That applause was a statement. We’re Americans and no one is ever going to cause us to lose our liberties.”