Mass. antiterror units were unaware of FBI probe of Tamerlan Tsarnaev
WASHINGTON — Antiterrorism intelligence units in Massachusetts were never notified that FBI agents had examined the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, further evidence of gaps in the network of post-9/11 measures that may have contributed to insufficient scrutiny of the suspected Marathon bomber.
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard, which are supposed to serve as clearinghouses for information about potential threats, were unaware that the FBI interviewed Tsarnaev as part of a three-month investigation after Russian agents alerted US officials to his increasing radicalization, officials said.
"We were not privy to the tip,'' said David Procopio, the spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, which oversees the Fusion Center. "They didn't share that information with us."
Without that information, the Fusion Center was never in a position to help federal authorities connect the dots on a potentially dangerous person. They could not evaluate the relevance of Tsarnaev's six-month trip to Russia in 2012; assess whether his potentially extremist views may have further hardened after he returned to his home in Cambridge; or decide whether authorities needed to interview him again.
Even if the FBI had informed the center of its inquiry, state officials would probably not have put Tsarnaev under more scrutiny, Procopio added, because the FBI had determined he did not pose a threat. "There was not much more we could have done,'' he said.
Yet Procopio acknowledged that local law enforcement might have responded differently immediately after the April 15 attack, when officials were scrambling to identify Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, from surveillance images captured near the site of the twin bombings.
"That's a fair question," he said. "We did not know immediately after."
A spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department said the Boston Regional Intelligence Center also was never notified about the FBI investigation.
In response, FBI supervisory Agent Jason Pack e-mailed a statement suggesting that state and local officials had ample access to information about the Tsarnaev investigation in 2011, through their participation in an FBI unit in Boston, the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"Many state and local departments directly involved and affected by the Boston Marathon investigation have representatives who are full-time members of the JTTF and who have the same unrestricted access to information and government databases as their FBI colleagues,'' Pack said. "State and local JTTF representatives were assigned to the squad that conducted the 2011 assessment.''
As evidence of poor coordination and sharing of information among key security agencies continues to build, the White House has launched an internal investigation of the handling of the Tsarnaev case that will focus on weaknesses in the nation's system of tracking suspected terrorists.
Obama administration officials have asked the National Counter-Terrorism Center, which coordinates a vast network of databases and terror watchlists, to recreate the steps taken by the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, and others after the Russians began notifying US officials about Tsarnaev.
The investigation will include a review of when Tsarnaev was added to the broadest terrorism watch list (called the Terrorism Identification Datamart Enterprise, or TIDE) at the behest of the CIA in the fall of 2011, and why he was not reinterviewed after a separate alert system informed officials he had traveled to Russia in January 2012.
The White House said earlier this week it has asked agencies to review all aspects of Tsarnaev's activities. The specific internal investigation by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, including scrutiny of how it maintains its terror watch lists, has not previously been reported.
The Boston Marathon bombings, the first terrorist bomb attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, killed three people and injured more than 250. The suspects allegedly shot to death an MIT police officer after their images were released to the public April 18. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died a few hours later, early Friday morning, after a shootout with police. His younger brother, captured Friday in Watertown, is at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev's travel to Russia in 2012 generated Department of Homeland Security notifications — both when he left the United States and when he returned — because he had been placed on watch lists, a US law enforcement official said. But because the FBI investigation had decided he posed no threat in 2011, the Homeland Security notifications did not require that he be taken aside and interviewed when he returned, the official said.
The watch list system did generate an automatic notification to an officer in the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston — which is supervised by the FBI — saying that Tsarnaev had returned, according to the official. That contradicts a statement by Senator Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, who has said he was told by the FBI that it did not know Tsarnaev traveled to Russia because his name was misspelled on an airliner passenger list.
Demands from lawmakers grew Thursday to fix poor coordination in the counterterrorism system, including watch list procedures that have come under fire in recent years from oversight groups, civil libertarians, and internal auditors.
"It is time to reevaluate the list,'' said Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee who has been critical of the system of watch lists for both unnecessarily singling out innocent people and for not giving sufficient attention to potential threats.
The White House-ordered review is also seeking to learn what level of "biometric" data on the suspect was available, including photos, fingerprints, and other information that could have at least helped the FBI identify him from surveillance footage captured at the bombing sites, rather than having to seek public assistance, according to a US intelligence official directly involved.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, terrorist watch lists were kept by several agencies. But in September 2003, under a presidential directive, the government consolidated and expanded its use of the watch lists.
Now various federal intelligence agencies forward nominations to the National Counter-Terrorism Center to place suspects into the TIDE database.
As of December 2011, the TIDE database contained more than 740,000 people, most with multiple spellings and variations of their names, according to the counterterrorism center.
But someone such as Tsarnaev (a citizen of Kyrgyzstan who legally resided in the United States) should be easier to pick out of that vast universe of names, because US citizens and legal permanent residents made up less than 2 percent of the listings.
Being on the TIDE list is not like being on the much-narrower no-fly list. Someone listed on TIDE can can still board the airplane. But it does provide agencies with intelligence and the ability to screen a potential suspect when they leave or reenter the country. There is a separate list, the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB, which is administered by the FBI. As of May 2010, the TSDB contained information on 423,000 people, according to FBI data. (The FBI placed Tsarnaev on this list.) US citizens and legal permanent residents made up about 5 percent of those listings.
Another safeguard developed since 9/11 is the network of fusion centers across the country. They were expressly created to make sure law-enforcement agencies shared terrorist-related information developed by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
That fact that the FBI did not notify the Commonwealth Fusion Center about Russia's concerns about Tsarnaev, and the FBI's subsequent inquiry in 2011, struck some observers as the latest signal of a communication breakdown.
"It highlights a concern that we have and the need for agencies to share data on the subjects that they are investigating," said Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association.
Sena said that the Massachusetts fusion center and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center completed an assessment of the possibility of an attack on the Boston Marathon, as it has for other events that attract large numbers of people.
Fusion centers have been controversial since their inception.A US Senate report released last year slammed them for having "ambiguous lines of authority" and for potentially violating civil rights during data-mining projects, and it concluded the centers are undermined by "excessive secrecy."