FBI Admits It Missed Opportunities to Stop Tamerlan Tsarnaev

In a newly unclassified report, bureau agents describe a “huge” lapse that could have “changed everything” about the Boston marathon bombing

A government report released on Thursday sheds new light on the failures of federal law enforcement officials to recognize Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a potential source of terrorism in the years before the Boston Marathon bombing. The document—an unclassified summary report from the Inspectors General of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security—calls particular attention to an FBI interview of Tsarnaev in 2011 and the failure of a Boston agent of the Joint Terrorism Task Force to follow up on an automated alert that Tamerlan was leaving the country for Dagestan.

The report reveals that in March 2011, the Russian Federal Security Service provided the FBI with information that Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva were “adherents of radical Islam and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified ‘bandit underground groups’ in Dagestan and Chechnya.

But according to that same report, when an officer from the FBI-led Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) questioned Tamerlan and his parents, the JTTF never asked about Tamerlan’s travel plans. Nor did the JTTF officer question Tamlerlan Tsarnaev’s wife or his ex-girlfriend, who had filed an assault charge against him in 2009. Though the report says that it is “impossible to know what the former girlfriend and wife would have told the FBI in 2011,” the authors also point out that after the bombing, both Tamerlan’s ex-girlfriend and his wife told law enforcement about his growing radicalism prior to 2011.

Instead, after interviewing Tamerlan, the Boston JTTF closed the assessment “having found no link or ‘nexus’ to terrorism.” However, the JTTF set up an electronic alert that would notify the agency in the event that Tamerlan left the country. And indeed, just months later, when Tamerlan purchased a plane ticket to Dagestan, that alert was activated. But even though Tamerlan’s trip to Dagestan sent an alert to the Boston JTTF officer who conducted the interview, the Boston JTTF officer never requested that Tamerlan be questioned or inspected. Because of this, according to the new IG report, “On the evening of January 21, 2012, when Tsarnaev’s flight was departing, he was a low priority relative to the other passengers of potential concern.”

So how big a deal was it that the JTTF failed to responded to the alert? According to the FBI’s own agents, it was “huge.”

In the new IG report, the Special Agent in Charge of the Boston JTTF says she was not alerted to Tsarnaev’s travel—but if she knew he was headed to an area known to be an extremist training ground, it would have “changed everything.”

The FBI legal attaché in Russia described Tamerlan’s trip as “huge” and said that if he had known about it, “he would have reported the information to CTD [the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division] and the Boston Field Division for them to take any actions they deemed appropriate,” the report says. That agent also said that had the alert been noted and standard procedure been followed, the FBI would have reopened its assessment of Tsarnaev and sought more information on his activities while in Russia.

About six months after the Russians notified the FBI about Tsarnaev’s activity, the report shows, the same Russians notified the CIA with substantially the same information. The CIA alerted several agencies including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which placed Tsarnaev on a watch list. The NCTC then referred Tsarnaev’s records to an FBI-led task force called the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, which attempts to identify foreign terrorists operating in the United States. But when “an FTTTF analyst reviewed Tsarnaev’s information,” the report says, the analyst “determined that the Boston JTTF previously had conducted an assessment of Tsarnaev based on the same information from the Russian government.” To translate: One FBI-led agency failed to follow up on Tsarnaev because it thought another FBI-led agency had already looked into the matter. One failure bred another.

Despite all of these revelations, the report concludes that “based on all of the information gathered during our coordinated review, we believe that the FBI, CIA, DHS, and NCTC…followed procedures appropriately.” US Congressman Bill Keating [D-Massachusetts], who sits on the Congressional Homeland Security Committee, says that part of what’s so disturbing about these reports is that the federal agents were actually following procedure when they didn’t pursue tips from Russia aggressively. “There were instances where people conformed with the guidelines,” said Keating. But he also says this shows intelligence agencies failed to implement guidelines outlined in the 9/11 Commission report to improve these procedures and share information. “They weren’t implemented to the extent they should be over the last ten years.”

One of the areas where information sharing needs to be improved, says Keating, is between federal agents and local law enforcement in Joint Terrorism Task Force. “I want to see more local police with access to information from federal authorities. I’d like to see procedures reviewed so there can be more flexibility going forward, and I want to see agencies coordinating within themselves,” he says.

“It sounds simple but if it was that simple we wouldn’t be here 10 years after the 9.11 commission.”