FBI Official: Tsarnaev Surveillance Allegations Are ‘Patently False’

The bureau maintains it didn't know the identities of the bombing suspects until after Tamerlan Tsarnaev's corpse was fingerprinted, contrary to what an MIT patrol supervisor has to say.

The FBI is pushing back hard against allegations aired Friday on WBUR that the bureau had identified the bombing suspects well before the time authorities have publicly claimed.

Clarence Henniger, the MIT patrol supervisor who first found the bullet-riddled body of slain MIT officer Sean Collier, told researchers who are constructing an oral history of the bombing at Northeastern University that the FBI knew who the Tsarnaevs were and that agents were conducting surveillance on their home in Cambridge around the time that Collier was shot—in stark contradiction to the FBI’s claim that they did not know the bomber’s identities until fingerprinting Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s corpse at the hospital hours later. WBUR included Henniger’s comments as part of a story about the manhunt, and the blog Privacy SOS first noted the contradiction four days later.

In response, Assistant Special Agent In Charge of the Boston office, Kieran Ramsey, told Boston that Henniger is “absolutely uninformed” and that his claims are “patently false. We did not know the identities of the Tsarnaev brothers until after [Tamerlan] was fingerprinted.”

Henniger, a 39-year veteran of MIT’s police force, gave fuel to conspiracy theorists and bloggers when he told Northeastern University that “The word was out regarding the suspects. We knew that his house was under surveillance, and the feds were all over the city of Cambridge.” However, when contacted by Boston, Henniger admitted that his information is not based in fact. “We were just assuming,” Henniger said. “We had an idea that they had already put it together who they were.”

Henniger, however, was correct that FBI agents were swarming around Cambridge at the time Collier was killed. Ramsey, who was the on-scene commander in Cambridge that day, confirmed that agents “were following up on leads far and wide which included following up on leads on the MIT campus. Everywhere we could, where we had a lead, we would follow-up immediately.” Though he would not give specifics, Ramsey added that the leads his agents were tracking were connected to the bombings but not to the Tsarnaevs.

Late afternoon on the Thursday after the bombings, FBI and police officials released photos of the suspects, at the time known only as “Suspect 1” and “Suspect 2,” and asked for the public’s help in identifying them. Hours later, chaos erupted. Those of us in Boston are all too familiar with what happened next: The two brothers allegedly shot Collier to death before hijacking a car and throwing homemade grenades at police in a Watertown shootout.

This is not the first time the FBI denied knowing who the Tsarnaevs were before Collier was shot. Last October, Republican Senator from Iowa Charles Grassley asked the FBI in a public letter why there was increased FBI activity in the Cambridge area before Collier was killed. “Was the surveillance being conducted in Cambridge on either of the Tsarnaev brothers, their associates, or people later confirmed to be their acquaintances?” asked Grassley. In response, the FBI issued a statement saying, “No one was surveilling the Tsarnaevs and they were not identified until after the shootout. Any claims to the contrary are false.”

Despite the FBI’s strong assertions, Henniger stands by his story and says he still has lingering doubts about what the feds knew and when. “We still have questions,” he says, “and to some degree I’m sure [the FBI] knew.”

To that, says Ramsey, “That MIT officer could not be more wrong.”