Flowers are seen along a police barricade down the street from the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an investigation continues into dual bombings at the site
Floral tributes are left on a police barrier near the Boston Marathon's finishing line © EPA

The initial impulse to rally around the flag which delivered bipartisan support for President Barack Obama immediately after the Boston bombings is giving way to the task of a painstaking investigation and renewed debate over US counter-terrorism policy.

While the bipartisan sentiment in Washington still largely prevails, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, suggested on Tuesday that the urgency that once drove antiterrorist investigations had tailed off in recent years.

Mr McConnell said in a speech on the chamber floor that “the two parties stand united in our deepest sympathy for those affected first-hand by these heinous attacks”.

But he added that “with the passage of time . . . it’s safe to say that, for many, the complacency that prevailed prior to September 11 has returned”.

His comment has political undertones, as Republicans have long chafed at how Mr Obama has been able to occupy the high ground on national security since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Republicans were highly critical of the administration’s response to the attack on the US consulate in Libya last September, and pursued the issue for months in Congress.

Mr Obama made a short statement for the second day in a row in the White House press room and for the first time called the attacks an act of “terrorism”, something he had refrained from doing on Monday.

“What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organisation, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual,” he said.

Mr Obama seemed to want to speak for longer after delivering his statement and repeated a number of his points, before leaving the briefing room.

His statement came after he had been briefed by the chiefs of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the homeland security department, as well as his attorney-general and counter-terrorism adviser.

Military and intelligence budgets have grown sharply since the 9/11 attacks, nearly doubling in the decade to 2011, to reach $725bn that year, mainly to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and to provide extra resources for the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies.

Most domestic funding for counter-terrorism is contained in the homeland security budget but it is difficult to break out a figure.

“We are in a very bizarre and crowded jungle from a fiscal point of view (on counter-terrorism),” said Gordon Adams, of the American University in Washington. “But it has gone up.”

Mr Obama has ended the US involvement in Iraq and is unwinding the US military commitment in Afghanistan. Defence spending is now falling.

The irony of the criticism of Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism policies, however, is that they largely parallel those of George W. Bush, with one important exception, an order to end so-called “enhanced interrogation”, or torture, of terror suspects.

Mr Obama had pledged to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre opened by Mr Bush to house terror suspects but that promise has fallen by the wayside in the face of congressional opposition.

Scores of detainees at the facility, most of whom have been cleared for release, have been on a hunger strike in recent weeks in protest at their indefinite incarceration.

The agencies and bureaucratic machinery involved in investigating domestic terror attacks have expanded, along with budgets and political scrutiny.

At Tuesday’s media briefing in Boston on the bombing investigation, the governor, the mayor, the state’s senator, the city and state’s police chiefs, representatives of the US and district attorneys-generals’ offices, as well as representatives of homeland security and the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms, all made statements from the podium.

Whatever the resources, counter-terrorism experts said it was all but impossible to prevent all attacks.

“In an open society, there are always going to be soft targets each and every day,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He added that “an intelligence-driven policing process instead of ever tighter rings of security” was the most effective strategy to counter potential terrorists.

“It gives you a better chance to assess where the risks might be and to identify potential suspects,” he said.

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer

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