By weekend’s end, the fact that the Tsarnaev brothers were able to plan and execute their Boston Marathon attack, despite the FBI’s awareness of Russia’s concerns about their radicalization, was being blamed on intelligence failures and the proverbial “stove-piping.” Stove-piping is the term to describe, as the 9/11 Commission did in their review of the 2001 terrorist attacks, how intelligence and law enforcement agencies hold onto their turf by holding onto good information. Valid intelligence is therefore kept within a “silo” of a particular agency. The assumption is that if it had been shared with other “siloing” agencies, then the pieces would have fallen into place and an attack would have been avoided.
That is a theory and one that is gaining traction. From my experience, another theory is possible and may explain why Tamerlan Tsarnaev never was upgraded, so to speak, from the rather large TIDE intelligence database (the “E” in TIDE stands for “environment,” giving a sense of how it really is more about atmospherics and potential threats than real information) to the more exclusive ones, which would have guaranteed greater scrutiny of the Tsarnaevs.
What seems to be the issue, at least since the Russians finally disclosed that they had some sort of wiretap on the Tsarnaev mother, is that all of the intelligence agencies acted rationally given the FBI’s original assessment and interview. Since Russia never told the FBI of their wiretap, or concerns about the mother, the FBI was left with little to go by. Once that was the case, then the activities of other federal agencies – the CIA, DHS, and possibly others – are completely rational and actually suggest, given all the activity around the brothers, that they were sharing concerns. The problem was that the concerns never amounted to much.
This may not be a silo problem (the silo problem may exist between the FBI and state and local authorities on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but I don’t know the protocols of disclosure or what exactly was shared.) This may actually be a quality problem: Without the Russian intelligence, and possibly because of too cursory of an FBI review, every other agency acted as one would expect them to once the initial assessment was made.
This is not to excuse them and certainly there should be analysis to determine what happened during that FBI review of Tamerlan. But we should withhold judgment of whether this is a “stovepipe” error lest we begin to fix the wrong problem.
Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist. She was assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem