CIA Wanted Tamerlan Tsarnaev on Terrorist Watch List in 2011

The CIA unsuccessfully lobbied to put Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the eldest of the Boston Marathon bombers, on the counterterrorism watch list in 2011.

Bush

The CIA unsuccessfully lobbied to put Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the eldest of the Boston Marathon bombers, on the counterterrorism watch list in 2011.

WaPo (“CIA pushed to add Boston bomber to terror watch list“):

The CIA pushed to have one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers placed on a U.S. counterterrorism watch list more than a year before the attacks, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Russian authorities contacted the CIA in the fall of 2011 and raised concerns that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed last week in a confrontation with police, was seen as an increasingly radical Islamist who could be planning to travel overseas.

The CIA request led the National Counterterrorism Center to add Tsarnaev’s name to a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, that is used to feed information to other lists, including the FBI’s main terrorist screening database.

The CIA’s request came months after the FBI had closed a preliminary inquiry into Tsarnaev after getting a similar warning from Russian state security, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The disclosure of the CIA’s involvement suggests that the U.S. government may have had more reason than it has previously acknowledged to scrutinize Tsarnaev in the months leading up to the bombings in Boston. It also raises questions why U.S. authorities didn’t flag his return to the United States and investigate him further after a seven-month trip he took to Russia last year.

Russian authorities warned the FBI and CIA separately, and both looked into the matter; to what extent, we don’t yet know. Presumably, Congress will investigate the matter; certainly, they should.

Right now, all we can do is speculate. It may simply be that the evidence was too thin to justify putting Tsarnaev on a list that would have created great inconvenience for a resident alien. Maybe the Russians are constantly flagging Muslims to US authorities, thus lowering the threshold of alarm that such a notification would bring. Or perhaps our process for vetting people for the list is broken. Maybe there aren’t enough resources to investigate all the leads. Maybe there’s a bias towards Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Or maybe the CIA and the FBI are using different thresholds. For example, what if the FBI is looking at things from the standpoint of what evidence it would take to win a criminal prosecution, i.e. guilt beyond reasonable doubt? What’s the right threshold?

  2. rudderpedals says:

    The quoted bit says that the CIA’s request was granted and the name added to the TIDE.

  3. JKB says:

    What if the FBI or some of other alphabet agency, thought they had a confidential informant?

    Yesterday, I thought this speculation by The Diplomad was a bit out there but now…

    As I said above, I have no hard evidence for what I am writing. I am speculating, but doing so on the basis of many years of working on drug and terror-related issues. This has many of the features of a recruitment gone bad; of the FBI getting played by a psychopathic true believer.

  4. wr says:

    Boy, if only they’d been put on that list. Then they never would have been able to buy the explosives that killed and maimed so many people.

    Oh, no, wait. Thanks to the Republicans and the NRA, that’s not true.

    But at least they couldn’t have bought the guns they used to shoot cops.

    Oh, no, wait. Thanks to the Republicans and the NRA, that’s not true either.

    In fact, the Republican party has decided that it’s fascism to keep people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns or explosives, or even keeping track of such purchases once they do.

    So what the hell difference would it have made?

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    wr, try gun…and try, if the muslim terrorist POS was not given welfare money to spend on said things this might have never happend.

    Obama lets another terrorist hit us and you blame the people you hate. sigh…

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Quick question – wasn’t the whole purpose of the DHS to coordinate between agencies (like CIA and FBI) to make sure we didn’t have more slippage through the cracks like happened with 9/11?

    That’s my recollection of how DHS was “sold” to us.

    Did DHS look at this and side with the FBI? Was it never brought to DHS’ attention?

  7. Rob in CT says:

    Also, setting aside wr’s accusations, what precisely does being on the counter-terrorism watch list do? Would it prevent certain purchases? Would it result in being surveiled by the FBI or somesuch? What, exactly, does it trigger?

  8. Hal 10000 says:

    I’m a bit confused. WSJ is report that he was on a terror list. Two, in fact.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    @Rob in CT: The claim in the linked article appears that if he remained on the list and the FBI knew about it when Tamerlan returned from Russia, the FBI “might have found reason to question him further in the months leading up to the attacks.” And presumably if they questioned him, he would have tipped them.

    Seems like a little bit of wishful thinking.

  10. rudderpedals says:

    @Hal 10000: True dat. It’s a puzzle wrapped inside of an enigma stuffed into a blog post.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Also, Stewart Baker argues that the key opportunity was an inspection at the border:

    He was entering the country, and at the border the government’s authority to stop travelers, to question them, and to search their luggage, including their electronics, is at its zenith. If we have any doubts about the intentions of a returning green-card holder, this is the time and place to question him.

    When the FBI paid a visit to Tsarnaev’s home, Tsarnaev had complete control of the interview. He could throw the agents out whenever he chose, and he could certainly refuse to let them look at his computer and phone. At the border, though, he can’t. We could have learned a lot more about Tsarnaev’s journey into radicalism there. For example, the FBI’s preliminary investigation included checking to see if Tsarnaev had posted on certain radical Islamist websites, but it couldn’t know what he might have downloaded, and it’s not clear that the FBI had any way to tell what he might have posted under a pseudonym. Again, the government had its best chance of discovering those things by conducting a secondary inspection of Tsarnaev when he returned from Russia.

    That makes a little more sense, particularly if a search of his computer and phone provided information that increased our ability for ongoing surveillance.

  12. matt bernius says:

    @Hal 10000:

    I’m a bit confused. WSJ is report that he was on a terror list. Two, in fact.

    My understanding is that in the various lists Tamerlan was on, he was always listed at the lowest “threat” level — i.e. someone to be aware of, but not closely monitor. It should be noted that by all accounts, the Russians asked the US to look into him, not because the Russians thought he was a threat to Russia, not the US.

    From the little I know about these things, countries have a very low threshold for making that request. During the height of the IRA there were lots and lots of US citizens that the UK asked to be placed on these lists. At the height of things, all you had to do was be of Irish descent and publish an article or make a public speech in support of Sinn Féin or Irish Independence to generate a request to have a file started on you.

    So just appearing on a list really doesn’t mean what think so people assume it means.

  13. Gustopher says:

    Unfortunately, the Republicans in congress are only slightly more serious than G.A.Phillips, so they will not be seeking any actual answers, just trying to score points with the insane conspiracy theory base.

    So, we are left with the Democrats, investigating a Democratic president, being shouted down by howler monkeys spouting Republican talking points.

    I don’t expect to get any answers.

  14. Matt says:

    @wr: You’re nuts. Seriously you need an intervention.

    How does the NRA have anything to do with “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”??? You know the instructions the bombers followed to make explosives??? Do you have any idea how easy it is to make bombs with common household items? The brothers sure did as their reading material covered the concept extensively.

    They illegally purchased those guns as neither had a permit and the younger brother wasn’t even old enough to legally possess a firearm. So somehow despite all the laws the brothers were breaking it’s the NRA’s fault…

    Nuts absolutely nuts..

  15. Jeremy R says:

    @G.A.Phillips:

    Obama lets another terrorist hit us and you blame the people you hate. sigh…

    Out of curiosity, who did you blame for the successful terrorist attack that was literally a thousand times as lethal ~12 years ago?

    I don’t recall folks, within days, combing through law enforcement actions to somehow try and make the case that the President screwed up. I instead remember flags hanging off of every business & every car and a number of media personalities losing their jobs for being the slightest bit critical. It took years before the ‘non-partisan’ 9/11 commission was constituted to look into if there’d been any failings, and another year for them to release their report that went out of its way not to be very critical of the administration or its predecessor, and instead focused on law enforcement and the intelligence community as separate entities in need of reforms.

    Perhaps it’s just that the nationalist, rally-around-the-flag impulse, that goes into overdrive when the homeland is attacked, is dormant when the daddy party isn’t in power.

  16. Matt says:

    According to authorities there were no guns found with the brother that was captured. So all the reports of gunfire were the result of just the police apparently.. what a mess..

  17. Jeremy R says:

    @Matt:

    They illegally purchased those guns as neither had a permit and the younger brother wasn’t even old enough to legally possess a firearm. So somehow despite all the laws the brothers were breaking it’s the NRA’s fault…

    I think it’s very likely whoever sold (or gifted) them their firearms will have done so legally, where as if there was competently implemented universal background system, things like local laws at their place of residence, age limits, watch lists, etc would be the basis for informing the dealer/private-seller: “this individual can not legally possess or be sold that firearm.” The seller would then also be culpable in the event the gun is later used in a crime or law enforcement discovers its illegal sale in some other fashion.

  18. Rob in CT says:

    PD – thanks.

  19. wr says:

    @G.A.Phillips: “Obama lets another terrorist hit us and you blame the people you hate”

    Says the man who is blaming… welfare.

  20. wr says:

    @Matt: “How does the NRA have anything to do with “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”??? ”

    Because the NRA has fought vigorously against any regulation on the sale of explosives, and particularly against the mandating of tagging agents. See here, for instance:

    http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19950502&slug=2118763

    Before you call me nuts, why don’t you do a little checking into the organization whose every press release you cite so uncritically?

  21. Matt says:

    @Jeremy R: Except for the fact that they only had one gun and it was a 9mm lugar with the serial number scratched off. So everything you said is completely and utterly irrelevant as blackmarket gun sellers who deal in stolen merchandise don’t do background checks. So there were already a crapton of gun related laws broken before the brothers even blew people up..

  22. wr says:

    @Matt: “They illegally purchased those guns as neither had a permit and the younger brother wasn’t even old enough to legally possess a firearm. So somehow despite all the laws the brothers were breaking it’s the NRA’s fault…”

    Hmm, let me think about this. There seems to be something slightly off about this logic. What could it be?

    Oh yes — The NRA, with your poundingly vocal support, just fought off a bill that would have required background checks on gun purchasers. So a gun merchant would have had to check into the brothers and discover they couldn’t legally posess a firearm. As it is, they could simply buy a gun from any clown at a gun show. Thanks to the NRA. Thanks to you.

    If you’re going to proselytize constantly for the ability of any psychopath to buy guns, at least be man enough to accept the consquences of what you desire.

  23. Matt says:

    @wr: Dude what part of “household chemicals” do you not understand? Nothing you said had any relevance to the bombing or me…

    I do get a kick out of conservatives who are like “BUSH KEPT US SAFE…… after 9/11….”

  24. Matt says:

    @wr: Once again nothing you said had any relevance to what happened. Illegal gun sellers selling illegal guns in an illegal manner to people who can’t legally possess a gun aren’t going to conduct background checks…

    Seriously it’s blatantly obvious you’re at best skimming my posts. Your complete ignorance of the subject at hand isn’t helping either. So either start actually reading my posts and spend a little time to educate yourself on the subject or do everyone a favor and just stop posting.

  25. Matt says:

    BTW Gun merchants already have to do background checks. The only sale that doesn’t require a background check are private sales. The “gun show loophole” was basically private sellers renting tables to sell at a gun show. Since they aren’t a merchant/dealer by law they aren’t covered by NICS requirements. Even cap and ball pistols are pretty regulated these days.

  26. Matt says:

    There’s speculation on the source of the materials for the bombs but it appears at least part of the bomb used fireworks. They even know what store some of the fireworks was purchased at. So now WR I ask what would you do with that information? Do you want to raid the store now?

    BTW explosives are already quite regulated. You can only buy so much black powder at a time etc. I guess maybe now you want to heavily regulate fireworks too?

  27. Jeremy R says:

    Russia has told US that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did not contact terror groups during 2012 trip, says official

    WASHINGTON — Russia has informed the United States that it knew of no contact between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and any known terrorist groups during his six-month trip to Dagestan in 2012, according to an official who attended a closed-door Senate briefing Thursday morning by top counterterrorism officials.

    Russia provided the information to US authorities five days ago, the official said.

    The FBI and the Tsarnaev Case: What the bureau can and can’t do on American soil

    Individuals familiar with the FBI investigation have confirmed to me that Russia made no official requests to the bureau beyond its original request. These individuals also said that Russian officials did not respond to the FBI’s requests for additional information and noted that such behavior is not unusual: Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, has often failed to proactively aid the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts — it has been more concerned with appearing cooperative than with providing actual assistance.

    The request from the FSB would have resulted in the opening of a Foreign Police Cooperation case — functionally the equivalent of an assessment. We know that the Boston field office then checked bureau files, records, databases, telephone communications, and any prior investigations into Tamerlan’s activities. But Foreign Police Cooperation cases, like assessments, do not allow agents to use any legal process, such as a search warrant, in conducting their inquiry, and much like assessments, they are routine. As the last step, the FBI interviewed Tsarnaev and his family. According to its April 19 press release, “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. The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government.”

    Assessing whether the FBI bungled the Tamerlan inquiry requires understanding not only what is authorized under a Foreign Police Cooperation case, but also what is not. The DIOG generally requires FBI agents to use the “least intrusive method” possible and emphasizes that the FBI is “responsible for protecting the American public, not only from crime and terrorism, but also from incursions into their constitutional rights.” Therefore the idea that the FBI could conduct indefinite surveillance of any individual suspected of terrorism without an ongoing reasonable suspicion of federal criminal activity flies in the face of both the bureau’s manpower capabilities — which are not unlimited — and the responsibility to protect individual civil rights.

    Much has been made of the fact that the FBI was unaware of Tamerlan’s subsequent trip back to Russia in 2012. Little criticism is being raised, however, regarding the FSB’s responsibility to provide information about that visit — information that the FBI is on record as having requested.

    Despite the anger we feel over Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s involvement in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, the killing of three spectators at the race, and the cold-blooded murder of a police officer, both he and his brother Dzhokhar were considered United States Persons under the law at the time the Russians made their request. That means that they were protected from unnecessarily intrusive investigative techniques by both the DIOG and the U.S. Constitution. The FBI did not bungle the Tamerlan inquiry. It followed the law.

  28. wr says:

    @Matt: “Seriously it’s blatantly obvious you’re at best skimming my posts”

    I’ve read Thomas Pynchon novels that are shorter than your posts. And frankly, I get sick of reading that only those who can properly cite the model and serial numbers of every weapon ever manufactured has the right to comment on gun policy.

    So it’s true. I haven’t studied every word you’ve ever written. Just enough to know that they all boil down to exactly the same thing: I want all the guns I can get, and any law that serves to inconvenience me in that regard is Fascism. And I refuse to take any responsiblity for anything that follows from my demands.

  29. wr says:

    @Matt: “You can only buy so much black powder at a time etc.”

    Yes. 50 pounds at one time. Barely enough to blow up an average elementary school. Clearly this is an affront to Freedom! and must be changed. I’m sure your buddies at the NRA will get right on that.

  30. Matt says:

    @wr: Limits on blackpowder vary but even 50 lbs isn’t enough to blow up the average elementary school. Blackpowder isn’t that great for large bombs and you’d be better off using a combination of other commonly available chemicals. I remember commenting on the boston globe video that the bombs seemed to be quite low powered and nothing compared to the IEDs our soldiers have ran into.

    Back to what I said earlier we know exactly where they got what probably accounts for most of their explosive material. What do you want to do with that information?

    @wr: You’re a massive ignorant tool..

  31. wr says:

    @Matt: “You’re a massive ignorant tool.. ”

    It’s true. I can’t discuss calibers and gun model numbers with you, so that, in your obsessed mind, renders me ignorant… because I’m ignorant about the only thing in life you seem to care about. I suppose this is what life is like to most Asberger’s sufferers… I probably seem terribly ignorant to those whose entire life is wrapped up in Jonny Quest trivia or stamp collecting, too.

    Of course, the obsession with Jonny Quest trivia is very rarely fatal to dozens of small children or the ticket buyers at a cineplex. But you can feel free to ignore those corpses, because they probably didn’t even know what caliber of bullet was tearing through their bodies.

  32. matt bernius says:

    @wr:

    Oh yes — The NRA, with your poundingly vocal support, just fought off a bill that would have required background checks on gun purchasers. So a gun merchant would have had to check into the brothers and discover they couldn’t legally posess a firearm. As it is, they could simply buy a gun from any clown at a gun show. Thanks to the NRA. Thanks to you.

    No offense @WR but you are conflating two different things here,

    As @Matt correctly notes, news outlets are reporting the following about the gun:

    One official said the serial number on what they described as a 9 mm pistol was scratched off. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation still in progress.[source: AP]

    While it is possible that the brothers scratched the number off after they bought the gun from a private seller (without a background check), the far more likely scenario is that they got the gun via the black market (i.e. that from the beginning this was an illegal transaction).

    There is no questions that extending background checks makes to all legal gun transfers, But trying to use the Tsarrnaev’s as a rational for that doesn’t.

  33. matt bernius says:

    @matt bernius:
    Ugg… me fail English? That unpossible…

    It should have read:

    There is no questions that extending background checks to all legal gun transfers makes sense…

  34. matt says:

    @wr:

    It’s true. I can’t discuss calibers and gun model numbers with you, so that, in your obsessed mind, renders me ignorant

    None of that is even remotely relevant to this discussion and you’re completely misrepresenting my positions. That kind of behavior is why you’re a tool in this thread. I have no idea what your point is right now as you clearly are not interested in discussing anything. All you want to do is virtually yell like a crazy man…

    @matt bernius: Rational and WR don’t go together in this thread..

  35. Rob in CT says:

    Just to follow up on the gun angle: at some point, there was a legal sale. The buyer then scratched off the serial numbers and re-sold the guns. Would I be correct in assuming that this is generally how it happens?

    I don’t see any way of dealing with that w/o tracking each and every weapon. Which definitely involves a database. Which, I’m given to understand, is a non-starter with the gun-rights folks.

    So we are at an impass.

  36. G.A.Phillips says:

    Unfortunately, the Republicans in congress are only slightly more serious than G.A.Phillips, so they will not be seeking any actual answers, just trying to score points with the insane conspiracy theory base.

    What about Obama let us get hit again don’t you understand?

    Says the man who is blaming… welfare.

    lol, no I blame those two evil muslims, and our stupidity for paying for, and leting them run around our country.

  37. Matt says:

    @Rob in CT: The point you bring up is very valid. I also think it’s in the back (in some cases front) of the mind of pro-2nd amendment advocates when discussing background check requirements.