FBI Backs Up Agent Who Failed to Identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev

“It’s absolutely unrealistic looking at a photo where there is a hat and sunglasses involved to expect that officer to recognize [him],” an FBI official said.

In response to a brewing storm of criticism, the FBI’s brass say they don’t blame the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force agent who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 for failing to recognize the bombing suspect from the surveillance photos of him on Boylston Street.

Speaking publicly about it for the first time, Boston FBI Assistant Special Agent In Charge Kieran Ramsey told Boston that surveillance photos of the suspected bombers were plastered throughout the FBI command center and that “everyone who works here was engaged” in the manhunt. But somehow, the JTTF officer who interviewed Tamerlan face-to-face simply did not recognize him. Taking into account that the interview occurred two years before the marathon bombings and that agents conduct more than 1,000 assessment interviews a year, Ramsey defended the agent. “It’s absolutely unrealistic looking at a photo where there is a hat and sunglasses involved to expect that officer to recognize [him],” Ramsey said.

Questions and skepticism about the JTTF agent have been mounting ever since a Justice Department report released earlier this month pointed out failures to identify Tamerlan as a potential terrorist. In March 2011, Russian intelligence alerted the FBI that Tamerlan was growing increasingly radical and had plans to join “unspecified bandit” groups occupying known terrorist training grounds in Dagestan and Chechnya. In response, a Boston JTTF agent visited Tamerlan’s home to interview the then-24-year-old and his parents but came up empty, finding no “link or ‘nexus’ to terrorism” and closed the case several months later. However, according to the report, the agent never asked Tamerlan about his travel plans or his intention to join any “bandit groups.” Yes, the agent set up a Homeland Security alert to monitor Tamerlan’s foreign travel and yes, the alert went off when Tamerlan bought a plane ticket to Dagestan, but the agent failed to respond to the alert and never requested that Tamerlan be questioned or inspected. Had the JTTF agent acted on the alert that Tamerlan was headed to an area known for terrorist training, according to the report, the Special Agent In Charge of the Boston JTTF said it would have “changed everything.”

The same could be said about the JTTF officer being able to identify Tamerlan from the surveillance photos: if he had recognized the suspected bomber, who knows if authorities could have made an arrest before the slaying of MIT office Sean Collier or the standoff in Watertown, where officers were injured. But the FBI is clear that no one is upset with the JTTF agent. “I’m not saying agents don’t make mistakes,” said FBI national spokesman Paul Bresson, “but by and large our agents are highly trained.”