Broward County

FBI apologizes, says it failed to probe tip on school shooter Nikolas Cruz

Florida Gov. Rick Scott called for the resignation of FBI Director Christopher Wray on Friday afternoon after the agency issued an extraordinary apology for failing to act on a tip that Nikolas Cruz may have been planning a school shooting. The tip, made Jan. 5, also referenced Cruz’s erratic behavior and his affinity for guns and violence.

Forty days after an FBI phone operator failed to report the tip, Cruz, 19, entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, mowing down students and staff with an AR-15. Seventeen people died in Florida’s worst school shooting.

“An apology will never bring these 17 Floridians back to life or comfort the families who are in pain,” Scott said. “The FBI director needs to resign.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, both fellow Republicans, echoed the governor’s outrage. Rubio called the FBI’s failure to act on the tip “inexcusable.” Curbelo branded it “unacceptable.”

In his statement, Rubio also called for Congress to do its own investigation into the agency’s protocols for following up on credible tips. “Lawmakers and law enforcement personnel constantly remind the public that ‘if you see something, say something.’ In this tragic case, people close to the shooter said something, and our system utterly failed the families of 17 innocent souls.”

Several Democrats have echoed the call for accountability. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said that there should be an investigation “if the FBI dropped the ball.” U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Parkland and is a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he would work closely with the FBI to find out what went wrong.

“We need answers from the FBI to ensure that if people offer their assistance, the FBI will follow through,” Deutch said in a statement. “And we need action from Congress to enact meaningful legislation that will stop horrific gun violence and make our communities safer.”

In Washington, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of the FBI and Justice Department’s protocols for following up on leads and threats of violence, according to a statement released Friday. “It is now clear that the warning signs were there and tips to the FBI were missed. We see the tragic consequences of those failures,” Sessions said.

The FBI said it was already looking into what went wrong. “We are still investigating the facts,” Wray said in a statement emailed to reporters. “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.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray ZACH GIBSON NYT

On Jan. 5, the FBI received a tip, phoned in to a West Virginia-based call center by an unidentified person described as being close to Cruz. In what the FBI has deemed a breech of protocol, the operator failed to assess the information provided as a credible threat despite the tipster’s detailed account of Cruz’s disturbed disposition and violent plans. “If the protocol had been followed in this instance, the information provided in the tip should have been assessed as a threat to life by the call operator and then packaged in a report and routed to Miami for FBI handling there,” according to an FBI spokesperson. “They also should have reported the call to their supervisor.”

Because the information was never passed to Miami, no further investigation was undertaken. The FBI declined to comment on whether the operator who flubbed the call has been subject to personnel action, but did say all operators receive extensive training in recognizing threats.

The January phone call wasn’t the first time Cruz crossed the FBI’s radar as someone who planned to become a school shooter. The agency received the first of two tips in September 2017 when a YouTube vlogger, Ben Bennight, reported that user “nikolas cruz” had left a chilling comment on one of his videos. “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” it read. Bennight, a Mississippi-based bail bondsman, said that the FBI sent two agents to interview him the next day. They also took a screen shot of the comment, before YouTube took it down.

According to the agency, the original tip never made it to the Miami field office either.

Rob Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI in Miami, told reporters during a Friday afternoon news conference in Broward County that the agency’s 1,000-plus staff “truly regrets” that fumbled warning last month. The agency, he said, was reviewing what happened and would improve future efforts.

He stressed that the agents shared the grief of parents who lost children at the Parkland school.

“We walk the same streets. Our children are in the same schools, including Stoneman Douglas,” He said. “As this community hurts, so do we.”

The FBI apology came on the same day that Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for meddling in the 2016 election. Yesterday, senior advisor to the president, Stephen Miller, foreshadowed the politicization of the FBI’s mistake in the face of the Russia probe. “America’s schoolchildren should rest assured that the FBI won’t rest until they track down those non-existing ‘golden showers’ photos from Russia,” the tweet read.

Already under fire from the Trump administration and some Republican lawmakers, the FBI also has faced strong criticism since Wednesday about its handling of the Cruz case after the news of an initial tip broke. Scott is the only politician who has called for Wray’s resignation so far, but the idea has been echoed on Twitter by some popular Republican commentators.

“FBI director Wray should resign. The blood of those children is on the hands of the FBI for repeatedly not doing their job and allowing this maniac to go unquestioned,” tweeted Charlie Kirk of the conservative NGO Turning Point USA.

President Donald Trump named Wray director after firing former Director James Comey. Trump called Wray a man of “impeccable credentials” before he officially took up the position in August. Wray has since been fighting battles of his own, even reportedly threatening to resign over pressure to fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who is accused by some of misshandling the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Connie Ogle and McClatchy DC staff writers Kate Irby and Greg Gordon contributed to this story.

Related stories from Miami Herald