FBI’s repeated failures
AS BOSTON marks the first anniversary of the Marathon bombings, one chapter closes. But there’s still enough to fill a book — especially when it comes to the role of the FBI.
Questions about it pour from the pages of numerous post-bombing government reports. An assessment by the House Homeland Security Committee challenges the FBI’s resistance to information sharing. A review done by various intelligence agencies highlights missed opportunities involving the threat posed by a radicalized Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Reports by a Florida prosecutor and the Department of Justice address the shooting death of Ibragim Todashev, who tied Tamerlan Tsarnaev to a triple homicide in Waltham on Sept. 11, 2011. Unsurprisingly, both reports conclude that Todashev’s shooting by an FBI agent was justified. But why was Todashev questioned in his Orlando apartment, with access to items that could be used as weapons, rather than in a more secure environment?
Lawyers for Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokhar, also claim the FBI sought to turn Tamerlan into an informant. The government said it has “no evidence” of that, which doesn’t exactly shut the door on the possibility.
Richard DesLauriers, the now retired FBI agent who was in charge of the Boston office and the Marathon investigation, went on “60 Minutes” to explain how the FBI identified the bombers. But the FBI has never told the public who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev, nor explained why that agent failed to recognize the older brother from the surveillance video. So much for that old saying that a police officer never forgets a face. If this agent remembered Tamerlan’s face, it might have averted the public release of the video and the manhunt and violence that followed.
As Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, points out in a piece written for WBUR.org, “Since 9/11, federal agencies and state and local law enforcement have been given hundreds of billions of dollars and breathtaking power to investigate anyone they deem ‘suspicious.’ ”
As a result, government data bases are vacuuming up vast quantities of information. None of it stopped the Boston Marathon bombings. “Who were the FBI watching, if not Tsarnaev?” asks Rose. That’s a good question, to which I would add, why did those who were supposed to be watching him do such a terrible job? And why are there no consequences?
The most damning description of a job poorly done comes from the summary prepared by the inspector generals of four intelligence agencies, including the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. According to their report, the FBI received information in March 2011 from Russia’s intelligence agency alleging that Tamerlan and his mother, Zubeidat, were “adherents of radical Islam” and that Tamerlan was preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified underground groups in Dagestan and Chechnya.
That triggered an “assessment” by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, which consisted of “drive-bys” of the Tsarnaev residence, an on-site visit to Tamerlan’s former college, and an interview of Tsarnaev and his parents. The FBI did not share any information with local law enforcement, visit Tsarnaev’s mosque, or interview his wife or friends. The agent “did not attempt to elicit certain information” about Tsarnaev’s travel plans, changes in lifestyle, or sympathy for militant separatists.
The agent told investigators “he did not know why he did not ask about plans to travel to Russia.” The agent also acknowledged he did not use every relevant search term to query the databases, nor search all FBI databases.
The FBI closed its assessment in June 2011, finding “no link or nexus to terrorism.” After the bombings, the FBI obtained information that showed Tsarnaev “spoke of jihad prior to traveling to Russia and that he shared extremist articles and videos while he was in Russia.”
Now, the FBI is happy to shift the blame, contending that the Russian government declined to provide information that might have led to more extensive scrutiny.
But the FBI never seemed all that curious.
As Boston moves forward, it should not close the book on why.