Was Boston Marathon bombing a US 'intelligence failure'?

House and Senate intelligence committees will ask that question of FBI officials during closed hearings Tuesday about the Boston Marathon bombing. They will want to know if any red flags popped up when Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Russia in 2011-12.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Flowers rest at the blast site on Boylston Street between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, in Boston.
Julia Malakie/The Lowell Sun/AP/File
Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Was the Boston Marathon bombing the result of an intelligence failure? That’s the question members of the House and Senate intelligence committees will be asking senior FBI officials at closed hearings on Tuesday.

In particular they and other lawmakers want to know how Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to Russia in 2011 and 2012 could have escaped the FBI’s attention, despite the fact that he had already been investigated for possible extremist ties.

Senate intelligence panel chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California on Monday said she did not understand why the elder Tsarnaev brother’s visit to his homeland did not ring a bell with the FBI and lead to further interviews.

The purpose of probing that issue in today’s Senate hearing, said Senator Feinstein, was “not to criticize, because I am a big fan of the FBI’s, but to go back and plug loopholes.”

Other lawmakers have been more pointed. Last week Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, and panel member Rep. Peter King (R) of New York sent a letter to the FBI and US intelligence agencies that flatly called the FBI’s handling of the case an “intelligence failure.”

The FBI’s position is that agents did investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the full extent allowed by federal guidelines. In 2010, the US received a request from Russia to vet the elder Tsarnaev brother due to worries he had become a follower of “radical Islam.” The FBI checked government databases for any mention of the name, as well as traffic to jihadist websites. They sent agents to interview him and members of his family. Finally, the feds decided they had done all they could within existing regulations on how far such investigations could proceed without corroborating evidence. They turned back to the Russians and asked for more detail.

“They put his name through the system and found one instance of domestic violence. They sent that report to the Russians and said, do you have any more, because they didn’t have enough. They never got a reply,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in a Monday press conference.

In late 2011, Tamerlan traveled from the US to Russia. He spent six months there, largely in Chechnya and Dagestan, predominantly Islamic areas in the Caucasus region. After he returned, he appears to have begun posting to YouTube videos of others exhorting jihad – a possible tip-off that he’d been radicalized, or further radicalized, during the journey.

Why did the FBI miss this? One possible explanation is that Tsarnaev’s name was misspelled on travel documents, according to Senator Graham. Such a glitch in counterterrorism is not unknown. In 2009, the US missed warnings about a possibly dangerous Nigerian student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in part because his name was misspelled in diplomatic cables. On Christmas Day, Mr. Abdulmutallab boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and attempted to detonate plastic explosives in his underwear.

In 2011, the misspelling of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name was such that he did not pop into the FBI’s system, said Graham.

“Now, did he intentionally misspell his name, or did the Russian airline just get it wrong? I don’t know,” said Graham.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) of Maryland, ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, added on Tuesday that his panel is also interested in whether the FBI just stopped investigating Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or whether the agency actually cleared him of the allegations made by the Russians.

Representative Ruppersberger said Tuesday on CNN that all evidence he has seen to this point indicates that the Tsarnaev brothers did not have the help of any third parties. But he cautions that the bombs they used were a bit more sophisticated than one would expect from lone wolves – they may have been detonated using cellphones, for instance.

Such a technique “takes a little bit more sophistication, so we need to continue and investigate that issue also,” said Ruppersberger.

Over at the national security legal blog Lawfare, Harvard law student Alan Rozenshtein argues that it is much too early to dub the Boston Marathon bombing an intelligence failure.

“We lack sufficient information, and gathering it will require patience and time,” he writes.

Hindsight bias makes it easy to say we “should have known it all along,” according to Mr. Rozenshtein. But that assumption forgets the noise associated with counterterrorism, the hundreds of other similar leads that the FBI looked into and found fruitless. It also ignores the fact that until the bombing the Caucasus region of Russia wasn’t high on the US list of possible sources of terrorism.

Nor can the US armor itself to perfection, stopping any and all such attacks, adds Harvard government expert Stephen Walt in a post on his popular Foreign Policy Magazine blog.

Mr. Walt argues that to some extent, the US has overreacted to the Boston tragedy – shutting down the whole city to hunt one suspect, and now hunting for someone to blame for not stopping the attack.

“Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur,” he writes.

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