Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officers confer near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 16, where two explosions struck the Boston Marathon. The explosives used in the bombings were likely homemade devices full of nails and metal fragments designed to cause widespread injury, according to initial reports. A day after an attack that left three dead and more than 170 wounded, the FBI and Boston police declined to reveal details of their probe, or whether they suspected the assault was linked to foreign or domestic extremists. (Don Emmert / AFP via Getty Images)
More than a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks exposed potentially lethal holes in law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ ability to share information, the Boston Marathon bombings are reviving questions about whether gaps persist, despite an enormous investment of money and manpower to close them.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement following a classified briefing this week on the Boston investigation that “it appears there may have been some evidence that was obtained by one of the law enforcement agencies that did not get shared in the way it should have been.”
“If that turns out to be the case, then we have to determine whether that information would have made a difference,” Chambliss said, adding that there is no evidence that anyone dropped the ball.
In a letter the week, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to hold a hearing into what they called “a string of apparent intelligence-sharing lapses.”
With many details surrounding the probe into the April 15 bombings still classified, the exact nature of the concerns remains murky.
But the focal point appears to be a trip early last year to Russia by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have carried out the bombings. The trip came after Tsarnaev had been interviewed by the FBI at the request of Russian authorities over possible links to extremist groups.
Because that interview had temporarily landed Tsarnaev on a watch list, his departure resulted in an alert to federal authorities, Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, said at a Senate hearing last week. But by the time he returned to the U.S. six months later, the FBI alert on him “was more than a year old and had expired,” Napolitano told lawmakers.
But nine months before the bombing, one member of Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of federal and local law enforcement specialists, received a warning that a suspected militant had returned from Russia, The Washington Post reported this week. The newspaper, citing unidentified officials, said that warning was apparently never forwarded to the FBI.
And according to the Associated Press, the CIA added Tsarnaev to a terrorist database in 2011, or 18 months before this month’s bombings, also in response to Russian government concerns. The database, known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center. As of about a year ago, some 745,000 people were on the list, according to the AP, which said analysts never found the type of derogatory information that would raise Tsarnaev’s profile and elevate him to a terrorism watch list.
“The TIDE database is a graduated one,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who saw no evidence of a communications breakdown between the FBI and CIA. “Just being in the database is not necessarily indicative of current nefarious activity,” Clapper said this week at a conference sponsored by C4ISR Journal, a sister publication of Federal Times.
“I think it would be a really good idea to not hyperventilate for a while until we actually get all the facts,” Clapper said, adding that the bigger issue is “the extent to which you want the government monitoring U.S. citizens’ behavior,” including their use of social media.
“At some point, we have to come to a judgment here on how intrusive you want Big Brother to be.”
But Stewart Baker, a former DHS assistant secretary for policy, viewed the lack of an alert when Tsarnaev re-entered the U.S. as evidence of a gap in border defenses. “We should know exactly why he was not questioned when he returned,” Baker said. “I don’t think it’s enough to say the investigation was over.”
The Boston bombings killed three people and left more than 260 injured. Four days later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property.
The sharing of terrorism-related information has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list since 2005.
The question of whether agencies missed something that could have averted the attack is certain to get scrutiny from both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Following a classified briefing this week by FBI, Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center officials, several Democratic members of the House committee said they had so far heard nothing that indicated a failure to communicate.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters that information-sharing was good.
“Later on, these agencies will be judged. But right now, it’s way too soon to criticize, to start making political arguments on who failed or whatever.”