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Review finds Marathon bombing exposed communication gaps

WASHINGTON — An Obama administration review of the Boston Marathon bombing revealed the potential for communication gaps within Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force -- including a reliance on sticky notes to convey crucial information about possible terror suspects -- and portrayed the FBI’s initial review of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 as somewhat cursory.

When investigators reviewed why Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to a restive region of Russia in 2012 failed to trigger scrutiny by the FBI, they could not find documentation that information about his travels was shared within the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force.

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Neither the Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the task force, who was alerted when Tsarnaev purchased airline tickets, nor Tsarnaev’s FBI case agent on the task force could recall any specific interaction they had about Tsarnaev’s travels, the report said.

Nonetheless, Department of Homeland Security officials presume the information was shared, based on routine practice -- which included oral communication and “passing a sticky note,’’ the report said.

FBI officials disagree about the significance of failures to more closely scrutinize Tsarnaev after his trip to Russia, the report added.

Lawmakers received briefings Thursday about the findings of the report, which was based on a joint investigation by the inspectors general for four intelligence agencies, including the inspectors general for the Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2011, after being alerted to Tsarnaev’s increasing radicalization by Russian intelligence officials, an FBI case agent did not pursue a number of investigative avenues, the report said.

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,’’ the report said.

Tsarnaev’s case agent told inspector general investigators that the results of his initial review -- which included “drive-bys’’ of his home in Cambridge and interviews with him and his parents -- did not justify further steps such as interviewing his wife or visiting his mosque.

The case agent, who is not identified in the report, ``did not know why he did not ask about travel plans to Russia,’’ the report said.

The report rebutted public comments by FBI and other law enforcement officials that greater knowledge of Tsarnaev’s activities would have changed the outcome, but it did not criticize officials’ handling of the case.

“We believe it is impossible to know what would have happened if different judgements had been made,’’ the inspectors general said.

In response to the findings about the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Department of Homeland Security official said that procedures for sharing information within the Boston task forces and others like it country, which are all operated by the FBI, have been modified to require that all such information-sharing be done more formally -- to avoid simply relying on a verbal notification.

“Now it will be [documented], as a result of all of this,” a Department of Homeland Security official told the Globe Thursday.

A separate report by the House Committee on Homeland Security, released several weeks ago, confirmed that records showed that the Customs and Border Protection officer in Boston viewed an alert when Tsarnaev purchased a one-way ticket to Russia in 2011 – and again about six months later when he purchased a one-way ticket back the United States six months later. But officials have consistently been unable to explain how that information was handled within the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The New York Times Wednesday night -- based on briefings from unnamed law enforcement sources -- reported that the Obama administration intelligence review largely exonerated the FBI.

But the report paints a picture that reinforces many aspects of the House Committee on Homeland Security report, including communications gaps and missed opportunities.

A number of missed opportunities to scrutinize Tsarnaev’s increased radicalism came to light in the weeks after the April 15 double bombing, which killed three people and wounded 260. Tsarnaev who was killed in a shootout with police in the days after the bombing; his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who was captured while hiding in a trailered boat in a residential Watertown driveway, is awaiting federal trial.

The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 after receiving warnings about his turn toward radical Islam from Russian intelligence officials. The agency’s investigation resulted in Tsarnaev being cleared of suspicion, although his name and other information about him -- including requests that he be detained for questioning if he traveled abroad -- were included on government computers.

In another finding of the Obama administration intelligence report, according to the Homeland Security official, investigators identified “a pretty substantive gap” in the ability of those government computers to recognize names written in Cyrillic, the alphabet used in the Russian language.

The Globe previously reported that several references to Tsarnaev in government databases were spelled differently, possibly preventing more scrutiny of his activities in the months leading up to the bombings.

“The technologies we use as it relate to name recognition needed to be improved to include languages such as Cyrillic,” the official said.

Throughout the day on Thursday congressional members and aides, including many from the Massachusetts delegation, were being briefed on the classified version of the Obama administration intelligence report.

As members emerged, they would not discuss in detail what was presented. But several said they were concerned after hearing about some of the intelligence gaps in the months before the marathon bombing, as well as a persistent problem of sharing information between federal authorities and local law enforcement officials.

“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?” he asked. “And are we taking sufficient steps to plug those holes?”

Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston, had similar concerns about “gaps in the communication of information.”

“There were missed opportunities,” he said as he emerged from an afternoon briefing.

He said that he believes the FBI has accepted the need to change its culture by including recommendations that encourage wider sharing of information with local law enforcement authorities, a frequent complaint from Boston police in the aftermath of the attack.

Still, Lynch said it “remains to be seen” whether the FBI is truly committed or merely paying lip service.

Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat who has emerged as one of the harshest critics of the FBI, said the report underscores the need for changing procedures within the intelligence community.

He also casts a harsh light on the FBI claim that they needed more information from Russia in order to continue its investigation into Tsarnaev.

“If the United States of America becomes dependent on Russia for its domestic security information, we’re in a lot of trouble,” Keating said.

“The FBI has said if we knew everything we knew 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.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was also in the briefing, declined several requests for an interview. Her spokeswoman released a statement acknowledging that Warren received the briefing and saying that she urged federal officials to expedite the public release of their findings.

President Obama has not seen the report, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.

The White House, as they have from the first days after the bombing, mostly defended the FBI’s handling of the case. Acting on what he called “limited information provided by the Russian government,” Carney said the FBI investigated Tsarnaev and did not find any terrorism activity.

After the attacks, Carney said, the Russians were cooperative.

“The U.S. and Russia have a shared interest in preventing terrorist attacks and a history of close cooperation,” he told reporters traveling with Obama to Austin, Tex. “Following the attack in Boston, we received cooperation from the Russian government in the investigation.”

Also Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security released a separate internal report that lauded the efforts of federal and state agencies for their response to the April 15 bombings that killed three and wounded 260, saying the Boston’s preparedness for mass casualty events is a model for the country.

The report almost completely avoids any discussion about whether the attacks could have been prevented, focusing instead on the response of federal, state, and local agencies after the attacks occurred.

The 19-page report uses the word “success” three times, but never mentions the word “failure.” It doesn’t deal with some of the gaps in intelligence, or some of the potential missed opportunities to apprehend Tsarnaev during his travels to and from Russia.

While it recommends better communication between federal and state authorities, it does little to document some of the earlier miscommunications. It also does not address Governor Deval Patrick’s decision to take an unprecedented security step and ask the Boston area to “shelter in place” during a manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. The request essentially shut down the City of Boston for a full day.

“The City of Boston was well positioned to respond to emergency situations given the significant planning, exercises, and training focused on similar, large-scale, complex events it had undertaken in recent years,” the report read.

“The Boston Marathon was unique in many ways due to the response assets on hand, first responder personnel on site, and longstanding personal relationships that were relied upon,” the report added.

The report notes several areas for improvement. The DHS reviewed its name-matching capabilities, for example, to improve its ability to detect variations of names derived from a wide range of languages.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Matt Viser of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
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