New Watchdog Report Raises More Questions on Whether Boston Bombings Could Have Been Prevented

PHOTO: Tamerlan Tsarnaev smiles after winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves Championship Julia Malakie/AP Photo
Tamerlan Tsarnaev smiles after accepting a trophy for winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves Championship in Lowell, Mass., Feb. 17, 2010.

“It is impossible to know what would have happened had different judgments been made.”

That is the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community’s internal watchdogs after a lengthy and in-depth review of how the U.S. government handled information it obtained about a key Boston bombing suspect in the years and months before the attack.

A declassified summary of the group’s final report says all of the relevant agencies – the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center – “generally shared information and followed procedures appropriately,” making “investigative judgments” based on the law and what they knew at the time.

But the report’s summary also concludes that one episode a year before the attack “was significant” and “warranted further investigative action.” The report cites at least some factions within the FBI who believe a more precise and robust response by U.S. personnel could have “changed everything.”

On April 15, 2013, two Boston-area immigrants of Chechen descent, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, allegedly detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line. Three people, including an 8-year-old boy, were killed, and more than 200 others were injured.

More than two years before that, the FBI learned from Russian intelligence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an “adherent” of radical Islam and was “preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified ‘bandit underground groups,’” according to the report summary released Thursday.

Armed with that information, an FBI agent in Boston began to investigate Tsarnaev, conducting database searches, performing “drive-bys” of Tsarnaev’s home, and even interviewing Tsarnaev himself. But the agent never found any negative information about Tsarnaev, and the “assessment” was closed three months later.

Still, Tsarnaev was placed into a very broad terrorism-related database, but he was not placed on any of the more restrictive watchlists because there was no basis for classifying him as a known or suspected terrorist. The fact that his name had been initially entered into the FBI system as “Tsarnayev” did not help things, nor did the fact that Russian intelligence apparently never responded to FBI requests for more information on Tsarnaev, according to the report’s summary.

So when Tsarnaev was looking to fly to Russia in January 2012, a database alerted a Customs and Border Protection officer in Boston about the upcoming travel, but Tsarnaev was deemed “a low priority” for additional screening compared with other passengers on the flight. While the officer “most likely” informed the FBI agent about the travel, Tsarnaev didn’t receive additional screening upon his return six months later either because he was never identified as a subject of interest, the report concluded.

“FBI officials disagreed about the significance of Tsarnaev’s travel to Russia and whether it should have resulted in further investigative action,” said the summary of the report, drawing on inquiries by the DHS, CIA and Justice Department inspectors general.

The FBI agent who looked into Tsarnaev “said that the travel would not have been significant because the assessment was closed and the FBI already had asked the Russians for additional derogatory information,” according to the summary. “When asked whether he would have considered taking further investigative steps had he learned of the travel at the time, the [FBI] Agent said that he would not have done anything differently.”

But other FBI officials insisted the information about Tsarnaev’s travel would have been important.

For example, the head of Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force at the time “expressed the belief … that if someone had ‘pinged’ the [FBI] Agent about Tsarnaev’s travel, it would have ‘changed everything.’”

“He said that had he known about the travel, he probably would have reopened the assessment, interviewed Tsarnaev upon his departure from the United States, informed the [FBI legal attaché in Moscow] of the travel so that a determination could have been made about notifying the Russian government, and worked with the [legal attaché] to request information from the Russian government about Tsarnaev’s activities in Russia,” the summary continues.

Similarly, the legal attaché in Moscow from May 2011 to October 2012 characterized Tsarnaev’s travel as “huge” but said he wasn’t aware of it at the time. He said the “normal course of events” in such cases would have been for the FBI to reopen the assessment and seek additional information from Russian intelligence.

SEE OUR FULL COVERAGE OF THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS AND THEIR AFTERMATH The summary out Thursday noted that, beginning at least a year before the bombing, Tsarnaev collected and shared jihadist videos and other extremist materials. He downloaded the work of radical cleric Anwar Awlaki and had obtained at least seven issues of al Qaeda In the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine. In about October 2012, Tamerlan started posting jihadi videos on YouTube, but he only used his real name on the account months before the bombing.

The report notes that the FBI agent who interviewed Tsarnaev never interviewed Tsarnaev’s wife or former girlfriend – who, after the bombing last year, told authorities that Tsarnaev began to shift toward radical Islam in 2006.

With its exhaustive inquiry now completed, the intelligence community’s inspector general is offered a couple of recommendations to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Among them, the summary said the FBI should “consider sharing threat information with state and local partners more proactively and uniformly.” In particular, the FBI should establish a procedure for notifying state and local officials when it has conducted a counterterrorism assessment of someone living in or tied to their areas, the summary said.