WASHINGTON — An Obama administration review of the Boston Marathon bombings released Thursday revealed communication gaps within Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force — a group that relied on office conversations and sticky notes to relay intelligence — and portrayed the FBI’s initial review of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 as somewhat cursory.
It paints yet another damaging portrait of law enforcement agencies’ missed opportunities to scrutinize Tsarnaev as he became radicalized in the two years before he and his younger brother allegedly planted two bombs at the Boston Marathon.
The 32-page report, the result of a yearlong investigation to determine whether official lapses allowed home-grown terrorists to escape detection, documents in the greatest detail yet how the FBI and other intelligence agencies handled warnings from Russian intelligence officials that Tsarnaev — along with his mother — was becoming a radical Islamist who needed to be monitored.
The report portrays the FBI’s investigation of Tsarnaev in 2011, which resulted in him being cleared as a potential threat, as only a fleeting look at a potential terrorist. The investigating agent did not question Tsarnaev about his Russian travel plans and militant beliefs, or interview his wife or his friends.
The review also exposes a series of communication gaps and errors. When investigators reviewed how Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to a restive region of Russia in 2012 failed to trigger fresh scrutiny by the FBI, they could not find documentation that information about his travels was shared within the task force.
The reason? The practice within the task force was to relay information about travel of potential terror suspects by “email, orally, or by passing a sticky note,’’ meaning there was no documentation that established what communication about Tsarnaev took place.
FBI officials interviewed as part of the review disagreed over the significance of missing Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia. One of the top officials at the Boston office told investigators that knowing Tsarnaev had purchased plane tickets to Russia “would have changed everything.” But the case agent in charge of Tsarnaev’s file said it would not have mattered to the outcome.
‘There were clearly missed opportunities for important further investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev (above).’Senator Edward J. Markey
Indeed, one of the major findings in the assessment is that Tsarnaev’s overseas travel should have rung more alarm bells.
“We believe it is impossible to know what would have happened had different judgments been made,” the report says. “We believe that Tsarnaev’s travel to Russia in 2012 was significant . . . and warranted further investigation.”
The report — commissioned by the president’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and conducted by the inspectors general for several intelligence agencies — was released late Thursday afternoon after members of Congress received closed-door, classified briefings on its contents. As Massachusetts lawmakers emerged from the briefings, several said they were concerned and called for further changes, including possible legislation to tighten antiterror procedures.
“Troubling,” said Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Brookline Democrat, summarizing his reaction after a morning briefing.
“Given the gaps in the system that were exposed, are there things we can do to actually plug those holes?” Kennedy asked. “And are we taking sufficient steps to plug those holes?”
The unclassified version of the report, which was based on thousands of documents and more than 160 interviews, significantly expands upon a report issued earlier this month by the House Committee on Homeland Security, which also emphasized the missed warning signs. In some cases, it directly refutes the FBI’s oft-cited assertion that it did everything it could to determine whether Tsarnaev posed a hazard.
Tsarnaev’s radicalism came to light in the weeks after the April 15 double bombings, which killed three people and wounded 260. Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police days after the bombings; his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who was captured while hiding in a boat in a Watertown driveway, is awaiting federal trial.
The latest report was “significantly delayed” because of disagreements between the inspectors general — who are independent of the agencies they monitor — and the FBI over whether certain requests would damage the criminal prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev first came onto the radar of US intelligence officials in March 2011, when Russian intelligence officials sent a memorandum to the FBI. Those warnings alleged that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, “were adherents of radical Islam” and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified “bandit underground groups” in Dagestan and Chechnya.
The Russian tip caused the FBI to open an investigation into Tsarnaev, but the case agent did not pursue a number of investigative avenues.
But the new report determined that the FBI case agent “did not attempt to elicit certain information during interviews of Tsarnaev and his parents, including information about Tsarnaev’s plans to travel to Russia, changes in lifestyle, or knowledge of and sympathy for militant separatists in Chechnya and Dagestan.’’
He also did not contact local law enforcement, visit the mosque that Tsarnaev attended, or interview key people such as Tsarnaev’s wife, Katherine Tsarnaeva. In a subsequent interview with the FBI, the report says, Tsarnaev’s wife provided information about changes in his behaviors and appearance between 2006 and 2009, including his growing interest in videos about Islam.
Tsarnaev’s case agent told inspector general investigators that the results of his initial review — which included “drive-bys’’ of his home in Cambridge, a visit to his former college, and interviews with him and his parents — did not justify further steps.
The case agent, who is not identified in the report, told investigators he “did not know why he did not ask about travel plans to Russia.”
Although Tsarnaev’s name was entered into federal databases to monitor his travel, within three months the overall investigation into him was closed having found no link to terrorism.
The FBI did follow up with two letters to Russian intelligence officials asking for more information, but there is no evidence that the Russians ever responded. The FBI has used the nonresponse from the Russians to bolster FBI officials’ case that they didn’t have enough information to continue investigating, but the investigation generally does not address that claim.
The review recounts other missed chances, which have been previously reported, to further question Tsarnaev when he traveled to and from Russia in 2012. When Tsarnaev initially purchased a one-way ticket to Moscow in 2011, it triggered alerts to the Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the Boston unit. A subsequent alert was triggered six months later when Tsarnaev purchased a ticket back to the United States.
But investigators have not been able to find any documentation that information about those travels was shared within the Joint Terrorism Task Force. One reason it has been difficult to track that information down, the report says, is that messages often were passed orally or using sticky notes.
Records indicate the agent — who has not been publicly identified — checked the appropriate databases upon learning of Tsarnaev’s travel. But neither the customs agent nor an FBI counterpart on the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force, who were both interviewed by investigators, could recall any specific interaction they had with one another about Tsarnaev’s travels.
In response to that finding, a Homeland Security official told the Globe Thursday, procedures for sharing information within the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force and other task forces like it around the country, which are all operated by the FBI, have been modified to require that all such information-sharing be done in writing. That step is meant to avoid simply relying on a verbal notification.
The FBI agent who handled Tsarnaev’s case said the travel would not have been significant because he had already been investigated and his case was closed — and because the Russians had not responded with additional information.
But several of the agent’s superiors said the information about Russian travel would have warranted more scrutiny.
One of them said “had he known about the travel, he probably would have reopened the assessment [and] interviewed Tsarnaev upon his departure from the United States.”
The supervisor said there was also “a very good chance” that the FBI would have also interviewed Tsarnaev again when he returned.
The FBI’s legal attache in Moscow characterized the travel as “huge,” and told investigators that he did not believe any US agency at the Moscow Embassy knew about the travel.
Without additional scrutiny on his trips, Tsarnaev was not detained and interviewed, either as he left for Russia or when he returned in July 2012.
In the months after he returned, Tsarnaev is believed to have participated in a triple homicide in Waltham. He also applied for citizenship and, as immigration officials began handling his application, FBI officials said they saw no reason not to grant the request. But his application was held up because officials were awaiting court documents related to a 2009 arrest for assaulting his then-girlfriend. The application was still pending when he was killed in a shootout after the Marathon bombings.
Throughout the day Thursday congressional members and aides, including many from the Massachusetts delegation, were being briefed on the classified version of the intelligence report.
As members emerged, several said they were concerned after hearing about some of the intelligence gaps in the months before the Marathon bombings, as well as a persistent problem of sharing information between federal authorities and local law enforcement officials.
“There were clearly missed opportunities for important further investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the bombings,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden. “Flags were not raised about possible ties to jihadism and information was not shared as widely or readily as should have been.”
Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat who has become one of the harshest critics of the FBI, said the report underscores the need for changing procedures within the intelligence community.
“The FBI has said if we knew everything we know now back then, we still would have done the same thing,” Keating added. “And I couldn’t disagree with that more. There is a great need for change.”
In his official response to the findings, FBI Director James Comey said the bureau “acted appropriately” and also agreed with the report’s recommendations. “We have already taken steps to ensure that all threat information is proactively and uniformly shared with the state and local partners whose support is so critical to the success of our Joint Terrorism Task Forces,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security said that it has “expanded information sharing with state and local officials about potential threats.” It also said it agreed with the recommendation that both DHS and the FBI clarify some of their procedures regarding how to handle “closed cases.”