After Grassley Request, FBI, Google Brief Staff on Response to Multiple Warnings
WASHINGTON – Following questions from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, FBI officials today briefed congressional staff on how it handled multiple tips about the disturbed teenager that would later carry out the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Google Inc. also provided a briefing on information it had about threats made on YouTube by the shooter, Nikolas Cruz.  Google also discussed its policies regarding cooperation with law enforcement.
Key Takeaways:
  • On September 15, 2017, FBI received and investigated a tip about a threatening comment posted to a YouTube video.
    • Prior to the shooting, the FBI did not seek information from Google, Inc., YouTube’s parent company, to ascertain the identity of the individual behind the comment or his location.
    • The FBI opened a counterterrorism lead as a result of the September 2017 tip.
    • The FBI closed the lead on October 11, 2017, because it didn’t positively identify the individual behind the post.
    • After the shooting, the FBI requested further information from Google and confirmed that the comment was posted by Nikolas Cruz.
  • On January 5, 2018, the FBI call center received a detailed tip from someone close to Nikolas Cruz.
    • The caller described Cruz as mentally ill with violent tendencies and identified him as a resident of Parkland, Fla. He had pulled a rifle on his late mother and mutilated small animals, such as frogs and birds. The caller had raised concerns to local law enforcement when Cruz posted suicidal comments on social media. The caller contacted the FBI because Cruz expressed a desire to kill other people and because the caller was unaware of any follow-up by local authorities. The caller indicated that Cruz was removed from school because of violent behavior, and the caller expressed concern that Cruz could carry out a school shooting.
    • According to the caller, Cruz was receiving life insurance and wrongful death benefits following the deaths of his parents. He reportedly used some of that money to buy guns and ammunition.
    • The caller flagged multiple social media accounts where Cruz reportedly posted pictures of firearms and mutilated animals, as well as suicidal and threatening comments such as, “I want to kill people.”
    • Despite a preliminary investigation linking the tip from the caller to the earlier FBI report about the YouTube comment, the FBI intake specialist and a supervisor at the call center decided not to take further investigative action.
    • The FBI did not open a counterterrorism lead or contact local law enforcement officials based on this tip.
  • The FBI has dispatched officials to both field offices where the tips were received to investigate what went wrong and determine how processes can be improved to prevent future failures.
  • Google reported that the threatening YouTube comment was marked as spam and removed by the owner of the video shortly after it was posted and therefore wasn’t investigated further at the time.
    • When flagging an objectionable comment for YouTube, users are required to select from several categories describing the comment, such as spam, sexually explicit material, graphic violence, hate speech or harassment. 
    • Comments that are flagged, other than those flagged for spam, are scrutinized by Google for potential referral to law enforcement. Currently, there is no explicit category for threat of violence to others, leaving the YouTube user with no option that clearly fit the threatening post made in September 2017. This is the same YouTube user that was so concerned about the post that he made repeated attempts to contact the FBI.
    • If the FBI had asked in September 2017, Google could have provided information to help confirm the commenter’s identity and location on an emergency basis or with legal process.
    • Grassley’s office suggested adding a threat of violence to others or a related category for users, an idea Google agreed to consider.
    • In response to a question from Grassley’s office, Google acknowledged that it has a role to play in reviewing its social media sites for content that merits a referral to law enforcement.