Boston Marathon bombing: Did US really miss chance to prevent it?

A Republicans senator is blaming the White House for failing to heed red flags on Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But others call that a rush to judgment.

Bob Leonard/AP/File
Bombing suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev (center right in black hat) and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, (center left in white hat) stand near the finish line approximately 10 to 20 minutes before the blasts that struck the Boston Marathon.

Did US law enforcement agencies miss a chance to prevent the Boston Marathon bombings? That’s a question lawmakers are asking in the wake of further revelations regarding what the FBI and CIA knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder bombing suspect killed last week in a shootout with police, and when they knew it.

In particular, some US legislators want to know why Mr. Tsarnaev wasn’t questioned or otherwise investigated after he came back from a six-month journey to Russia in 2012. It now appears that prior to the trip Russian intelligence told both the FBI and CIA that Moscow suspected Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam. His name was added to a US watch list as a precaution. But US officials took no further action following his return.

Boston is becoming to me, a case study in system failure,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina during a Thursday meeting with reporters.

US officials themselves caution against a rush to judgment. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a conference Thursday that Americans should not “hyperventilate” before all the facts are in.

“The rules were abided by, as best as I can tell at this point. The dots were connected,” he said during a public address to a Washington convention on intelligence.

US investigators are still looking at whether Tsarnaev met with or was influenced by or received training from religious extremists during his six-month trip to Dagestan and other restless areas of Russia’s northern Caucasus region

According to an account provided to the Associated Press by US officials, Russia’s internal intelligence service conveyed a message about Tsarnaev to the FBI on March 4, 2011. The Russians said that Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam and had changed drastically during the past year. They asked whether American intelligence had any further information on him.

The FBI then opened an inquiry into Tsarnaev’s activities. Because of this, his name was added to a Department of Homeland Security watch list used to screen people at airports and other border checkpoints: the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, or TECS.

FBI agents found nothing on Tsarnaev in their existing files. They investigated whether he had visited online sites promoting radical Islam. Eventually they interviewed Tsarnaev and his family members. They found nothing connecting him to terrorism and asked Russia for more detail. When none was forthcoming the FBI closed the review in June 2011, according to the AP account.

Then in September 2011, the Russians contacted the CIA with the same questions. They gave the US foreign intelligence service two possible birthdays, two ways his name might be spelled, and a look at how his name looked in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

CIA officials decided that Tsarnaev’s name should go into another watch list, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which is compiled and overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center. Crucially, Tsarnaev’s name was spelled differently in TIDE than it was in FBI files.

In January 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia. Just prior to his departure, the TECS database generated an alert due to his flight reservation, according to AP. That alert was shared with customs officers. But by then the FBI probe into his activities had closed. Plus, when the airline submitted his name for screening, his name was misspelled, so at that time no further alerts were issued.

Tsarnaev returned to the US in July. His name on the flight reservation generated another TECS alert that was shared with Customs. But he was allowed to pass without questioning because at that point the FBI had not found any reason to be suspicious of his activities.

The bottom line appears to be this: Homeland Security was aware of Tsarnaev’s travels, due to TECS alerts. But the FBI and CIA really were not. His name had not set off an alert from the TIDE watch list due to different spellings.

Upon his return to America Tsarnaev began to engage in suspicious activities, Senator Graham said on Thursday. But no alarm bells went off.

“The suspected radical Islamist, the person we got warning letters about, is openly on the Internet for months talking about killing Americans and engaging in radical jihad against the United States, and we were unable to connect the dots and pick that up,” Graham told reporters. “The rest is history.”

But DNI Clapper in his Thursday address to the C4ISR Journal Conference pointed out that just being in a database is not by itself indicative of “current nefarious behavior.” US agencies repeatedly asked Russia for more intelligence on Tsarnaev’s activities, and received none. At the time the FBI would have had no reason to reopen an investigation it considered closed.

And it is not as if US intelligence has only a few dozen, or even a few hundred, suspicious people to track. The US government’s TIDE list of suspected terrorists has about three-quarter of a million names. Nor is the list particularly discriminating – it includes everything from the name of at least one 2-year-old to a record for Ford Motor Company, according to security expert Marcy Wheeler’s Empty Wheel blog.

“This is the problem with over-collection of data: it adds a bunch more hay to the haystack for the time you want to start looking for a needle,” writes Ms. Wheeler.

And it is not as if the FBI is supposed to tromp on civil liberties in its rush to find that needle. US agencies face tight restrictions that govern their investigations of terror suspects on US soil, writes former FBI counterterror agent David Gomez in Foreign Policy Magazine.

To do more than it did, the FBI would have needed to have reasonable suspicion that Tsarnaev was breaking the law or presented a documentable threat to national security, according to Mr. Gomez. That’s meant to protect US citizens from overly intrusive government interference.

“The FBI did not bungle the Tamerlan inquiry. It followed the law,” writes Gomez.

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