CIA tried to get dead brother on terror watch list
April 25, 2013 5:00 AM
The Lowell Sun & Robin Young/Associated Press
This combination of undated photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.
By Greg Miller The Washington Post
WASHINGTON -- The CIA pushed to have one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects 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 Tamerlan 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 Tamerlan Tsarnaev after getting a similar warning from Russian state security, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 as to 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.
Also on Wednesday, more than 4,000 mourners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paid tribute to a campus police officer who authorities say was gunned down by Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar. The younger Tsarnaev remains under guard in a Boston hospital.
Among the speakers in Cambridge, just outside Boston, was Vice President Joe Biden, who condemned the bombing suspects as "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knockoff jihadis."
At MIT, bagpipes wailed as students, faculty and staff members and throngs of law enforcement officials paid their respects to MIT police Officer Sean Collier, who was ambushed in his cruiser three days after the bombing. The line of mourners stretched for a half-mile.
Mr. Biden told the Collier family that no child should die before his or her parents, but that, in time, the grief will lose some of its sting. "The moment will come when the memory of Sean is triggered and you know it's going to be OK," Mr. Biden said. "When the first instinct is to get a smile on your lips before a tear to your eye."
The vice president also sounded a defiant note. "The purpose of terror is to instill fear. You saw none of it here in Boston. Boston, you sent a powerful message to the world."
The CIA declined to comment on its role in the case. A U.S. intelligence official said it had "nominated [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] for inclusion in the watchlisting system" and had shared all of the information it had been given by Russia, including "two possible dates of birth, his name and a possible variant."
The official said that the information that Russia provided to the CIA was "nearly identical" to what it had shared with the FBI. U.S. officials said the warning to the CIA came from Russia's FSB, a successor to the KGB, and that it was based on fears that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an Islamist militant who might seek to carry out a terrorist attack in Russia.
The Tsarnaevs immigrated to the U.S. about a decade ago, but their family had ties to Chechnya, a region where Muslim separatists have been engaged in a bloody conflict with the Moscow government for decades. The younger Tsarnaev, who is recovering from gunshot injuries in a Boston hospital, was apprehended days after the marathon bombings and faces multiple terrorism-related charges.
The FSB appears to have turned over information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, including possible birth dates and the spelling of his name in Cyrillic letters, to CIA officials in Moscow in late September 2011.
The information was passed to CIA headquarters on Oct. 4 and relayed roughly two weeks later to the National Counterterrorism Center, an agency that serves as a clearinghouse for threat data and manages the TIDE database.
The Reuters news agency first disclosed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev's name was listed in the TIDE database. But the revelation of the CIA's role is likely to intensify questions over whether the FBI and other domestic law enforcement agencies missed chances to detect or disrupt the bomb plot.
The older Tsarnaev traveled to Russia on Jan. 12, 2012, less than three months after his name had been placed on the TIDE list. In congressional testimony Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the U.S. authorities had flagged his departure, but not his return.
"The system pinged when he was leaving the United States," Ms. Napolitano said at a Senate hearing. "By the time he returned, all investigations had been closed."
Ms. Napolitano was referring to the FBI's decision in July 2011 to close its inquiry into Tsarnaev after concluding he was not a threat. U.S. officials have said that FBI decision meant that his name might have come off the database employed by U.S. Customs agents a year later -- just days before his re-entry into the United States.
But the CIA's subsequent involvement in the case complicates that chronology, raising the possibility that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was still on the TIDE list when he returned. If Customs officials had alerted the FBI to his return, the bureau might have found reason to question him further in the months leading up to the attacks.
Instead, the FBI was not notified of his return, and it not even clear that the bureau was aware that Tamerlan Tsarnaev's name had been added to the TIDE database at the behest of the CIA.
The sequence has raised concerns among senior lawmakers that significant gaps remain in the elaborate screening systems that were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I'm very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Tuesday after emerging from a closed-door briefing on the bombing by senior officials from the FBI and other agencies.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the bombing has prompted the FBI and other agencies to evaluate whether their information-sharing procedures and systems should be revised again. But they stressed that it's not clear that doing so would have averted the outcome in Boston.
FBI officials defended the bureau's handling of the case.
In another development, two U.S. officials said Wednesday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was unarmed when captured, raising questions about how he was injured. Authorities had previously said he exchanged gunfire with them for more than an hour Friday night before they captured him inside a boat covered by a tarp in a suburban Boston neighborhood backyard.