Boston bombings case raises questions about post 9/11 intelligence
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Share and share alike was supposed to have been a lesson learned by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies from the 9/11 attacks almost 12 years ago.
A new hierarchy was created to draw together all the work done by more than a dozen government organizations including the FBI, CIA and others.
Now, the case of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev has caused some members of Congress, almost all of them Republicans, to suggest continuing problems with what they refer to as stovepiping — in essence, the failure of different agencies to share what they know.
“I think there’s been some stovepipes reconstructed that were probably unintentional,” GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia told reporters this week after a briefing by the FBI deputy director. “But we’ve got to review that again and make sure that there is the free flow of information.”
Late Wednesday, conservative Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire called for a congressional hearing on whether intelligence officials had information that could have nabbed the suspects — Tsarnaev and his younger brother — before the Boston attacks.
“Since 9/11, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on information-sharing, and Congress has passed sweeping legislation to reorganize our intelligence community to ensure that dots are connected and our intelligence agencies are talking,” said a letter by the two senators. “Unfortunately, it does not appear that the money spent or the information sharing environment put into place after 9/11 were useful in apprehending” the alleged bombers.
Tsarnaev was investigated by the FBI in 2011 on a tip from Russia that the immigrant from the Caucasus region might be shifting toward Islamic extremism.
While cleared of any suspicion of terrorist ties, his name automatically went into at least three federal databases, officials told CNN on Wednesday. Officials confirmed that the CIA also received similar information from Russia a few months later.
Members of Congress want to know why U.S. authorities didn’t monitor Tsarnaev more closely in the ensuing two years that included a six-month trip to the volatile Caucasus region, a hotbed of Islamic insurgency, as well as signs of increasing religious extremism.
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN on Wednesday that he believed a breakdown in communication occurred between the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border control, and the FBI.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told legislators on Tuesday that Tsarnaev’s departure for Russia in January 2012 pinged “the system,” but Goodlatte said that information apparently never made it to the FBI.
“They were not apparently sharing that information,” he said. “So the FBI, according to what we now understand, did not know that he was in Russia for six months and and did not follow up on his return. So all of these things lead to more questions about what needs to be done to make sure that these types of things don’t happen in the future.”
His comments echoed concerns by conservative GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who told CNN on Tuesday that the episode showed the Department of Homeland Security never notified the FBI that Tsarnaev had left the country.
“It was clear to me that the homeland security shop had information about the travel to Russia, the FBI did not, and they’re not talking to each other and they’re going back to the pre-9/11 problems here,” Graham said.
However, two Democratic House members briefed Wednesday by officials from the FBI, the Homeland Security Department and the National Counterterrorism Center said they heard nothing so far to suggest problems in sharing information between agencies.
“It appeared to me at this juncture that information sharing was appropriate,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California.
Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, allegedly set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three and injuring more than 260 others. Authorities also allege they killed an MIT police officer three days later and stole a car, setting off a Boston-area manhunt.
The elder Tsarnaev died early last Friday after a shootout with police and his brother was subsequently captured. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces federal charges that could bring the death penalty.
Graham questioned why the FBI investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 failed to bring his name up as someone to check out in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings.
He also noted that Tsarnaev and his brother were only identified three days after the bombings when authorities released photos and video footage of them at the scene of the blasts.
“I just find it really unnerving that we could have had him in FBI custody in 2011 and did a whole profile of him, and after the attack that his name not surface, that we didn’t check the database or the database had him missing,” Graham said.
Republican Sen. James Risch of Idaho, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cautioned against incriminating the FBI.
“This was not shoddy work,” Risch told CNN.”They were doing the best they could do with the information they had. But they uncovered absolutely no fact here that raised the matter to a level that this man should get 24-hour surveillance or any of the other things that are available to the FBI to watch them.”
The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington killed more than 2,000 people in the worst terrorist strike in the nation’s history.
A commission set up to review what happened found a lack of integration and cooperation between federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Subsequent reforms included a reorganization that created the National Counterterrorism Center and the office of a director of national intelligence to coordinate and oversee all intelligence-gathering efforts.
Ten years after 9/11, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau had changed its traditional crime-solving approach in way that “prioritizes the collection and utilization of intelligence to develop a comprehensive threat picture, enabling strategic disruptions of terrorist networks before they act.”
“This focus on the overall threat picture also elevates the need for information sharing, thereby changing the FBI’s role in and relationships with both the intelligence and law enforcement communities,” Mueller told a congressional committee in October 2011.
In the Tsarnaev case, the FBI investigation automatically put his name in three government terrorism-linked databases.
One was the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which includes more than 500,000 names of known or suspected foreign and domestic terrorists. Another was the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list, known as TIDE, which is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.
The TIDE list is similar to the TSDB database, but contains more detailed, raw intelligence. They are linked and both are tools for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information on terrorism suspects.
From the lists, the FBI Terrorism Screening Center recommends which names should be put on “no-fly” watch lists and other screening tools used by the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the State Department and the FBI.
But he was never on any watch list or “no fly” list, officials said.
However, it also was on a Customs and Border Protection list known as TECS, which is used to detect unusual or suspicious travel, a federal law enforcement official told CNN.
Because the FBI investigation turned up no threat and Russia never responded to requests for further information, the probe was halted, officials said.
During the investigation, the database included a notation that lasted a year that signaled authorities if Tsarnaev left the country.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Wednesday that the notification time period might be too short for people like Tsarnaev.
“Should the year be more? I happen to believe it should be,” the California Democrat told reporters, adding that “when a Russian security bureau says we have concerns that someone has been radicalized, I would pay more attention to it.”
Napolitano, meanwhile, lobbied for an immigration reform bill under consideration by Congress that she implied would have increased awareness of Tsarnaev’s travels through enhanced border controls.
The proposal strengthens “the electronic use of, or electronically readable passports for travel and so forth. so that we don’t have any manual entries,” she said.
A day earlier, Napolitano told a congressional hearing that Tsarnaev’s name was misspelled on his Aeroflot airline ticket, which caused what she called a “missed match.”
However, she also said that “even with the misspelling, in our current system there are redundancies and so the system did ping when he was leaving the United States.”
CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, a former FBI official, explained what happened.
“By the time he comes back, the FBI case is closed and, again, no additional information comes back from the Russians to keep an eye on him or that he’s on his way back to your country,” Fuentes said. “Once the FBI case is closed, there is no further monitoring by the FBI of his activity or whether he’s going to these Jihadi Web sites or becoming increasingly radicalized.”
Goodlatte said his judiciary panel and others in the Republican-led House “will definitely be following through to find out what happened, and what can be done to improve on communications between homeland security, the FBI and other enforcement agencies.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney called for patience.
“I think we need to let the investigation unfold and make the assessment when we know all the facts,” Carney said.
Tsarnaev was an immigrant from the volatile Caucasus region of southwest Russia who had legal residence in the United States and sought last year to become fully naturalized, like his brother.
However, Homeland Security officials rejected the citizenship request due to the FBI questioning before the Russia trip.
An FBI statement Friday said a foreign government — later identified by legislators as Russia — asked for information on Tsarnaev “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.”
In response, the FBI said, it “checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history.”
“The FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members,” said the FBI statement. “The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011.”
In addition, the FBI “requested but did not receive more specific or additional information” from the foreign government, the statement said.
The lengthy travel to Russia by Tsarnaev, who’s ethnically Chechen but came to the United States from Kyrgyzstan, caused some legislators and analysts to speculate he may have received training during the trip.