Failure of Imagination

How Feds Blew The Boston Bombing Case

The inability of the Joint Terror Task Force to admit any intelligence failures means that events like Monday’s marathon are no safer in 2015 than they were two years ago.


On Tuesday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev enters the sentencing phase after being convicted of setting off two pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line two years ago. He’s already been found guilty of all 30 counts against him; now the jury will decide if the 21-year-old should live or die.

But while lawyers and both sides debate what the right course of justice should be for the convicted terrorist, there’s an ongoing debate between law enforcement and politicians about the right steps to take to ensure that an attack like this doesn’t happen again.

Last week, 15 high-ranking members of federal, state and local law enforcement—as well as members of the U.S. Army—stood in uniform before reporters in the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts, to discuss security for this year’s race. It went off without a hitch yesterday.

The MEMA building, or the State Emergency Operations Center, is a Cold War relic built in 1963 to withstand a nuclear blast or a 6.0 earthquake. It has a bona fide bunker protected by a 9-inch-thick “blast door,” and a roof covered with two feet of high-pressure concrete.

This is where you’ll find the governor of Massachusetts during a snow emergency. Yesterday, on Marathon Monday, over 220 security liaisons representing 60 law enforcement agencies were there keeping the race safe.

“This plan is very much like the plan that was put into place last year,” said Peter Judge, head of MEMA, who asked reporters to spread the message to spectators not to wear backpacks or bring water bottles. Officials added that this year the race was a “no drone zone,” and asked people not to fly any recreational aircraft.

Despite the overwhelming police presence, the security meeting was fairly mellow. Thomas Grillk, executive director of the Boston Marathon, who recently was called as the government’s first witness in the guilt phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s bombing trial, opened with a joke about the weather.

Last year, 75 reporters crammed into the central MEMA for this meeting. This year, only a dozen reporters showed up, and since additional officers were there as spectators, law enforcement outnumbered press in the windowless room by more than two to one.

So what was this meeting for, really?

Did the top brass of more than a dozen agencies come together to stand in a row and preach a message that amounts more or less to what you’d hear going through airport security?

No, they’re trying to send another message, too: that the race this year is safe.

The first responders who came running to the gore and carnage after the twin explosions in 2013 are heroes, and probably saved at least a few lives that day. But there is very little that officers on the ground, or in the MEMA room, could have done to prevent the attack in the first place.

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Sure, if updated backpack guidelines were in place in 2013, maybe someone would have paid attention to Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as they strolled up Boylston Street carrying two homemade pressure-cooker bombs. But it’s also possible that the Tsarnaevs would have set the bombs off someplace else.

Backpacks weren’t the problem in the 2013. The problem was the failure of law enforcement to share information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel and growing radicalism among federal, state, and local agencies in the years leading up to the attack.

Which is why it was so surprising that, when asked by The Daily Beast what law enforcement is doing to improve information sharing among agencies Colonel Timothy Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said his department has no one working on the problem at all.

His reason? It was never a problem in the first place.

“I’ve always felt that the information-sharing with the [Joint Terrorism Task Force] has been outstanding,” he said.

Alben’s statement is disturbing—contrary to virtually every intelligence report that’s been released in the wake of the bombing. If we’re to take it at face value, Alben’s statement is a strong indication that—despite the valiant efforts of law enforcement on the ground, and the hundreds of agents holed up off Route One in the MEMA building—this year, marathon-goers weren’t any safer than they were in 2013.

“I would suggest he is in the minority of state police officers who share that opinion,” says Massachusetts Congressmen Bill Keating, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. “That’s not the experience of the troopers who work with me, or [those who worked with me] back in my D.A. days.”

Keating was the district attorney of Norfolk County from 1998 to 2010.

“To say it’s never been a problem contradicts the facts.”

This failure to share intel has been highlighted in heated congressional hearings, the subject of one Inspectors General report, and several reports authored by the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev didn’t appear out of nowhere. In March of 2011, two years before the Bostom Marathon attack and months before a triple homicide in Waltham in which Tamerlan allegedly slit the throat of his best friend, the Russian Federal Security Service (or FSB) tipped off the FBI.

According to the 2014 Inspectors General report, the FSB note informed the FBI that Tamerlan and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, were “adherents of radical Islam and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified ‘bandit underground groups’ in Dagestan and Chechnya.”

A JTTF agent questioned Tamerlan, but not thoroughly.

The agent never asked about Tamerlan’s travel plans, even though the document specifically notes travel as the next step in his radicalization process. Neither did the agent ever question Tamerlan’s wife or ex-girlfriend, who later were able to provide investigators with information about his extremism. According to the report, it would be reasonable to expect that the JTTF officer would question people with such intimate knowledge of the potential terrorist.

Then, in June of 2011, having decided that Tamerlan did not possess a “nexus” to terrorism, that same JTTF agent closed the case on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Although the agent still had Tamerlan on an electronic list that would send an alert when Tamerlan left the country, he never followed up on those alerts. One month after his case was closed, Tamerlan bought a ticket to Dagestan. The JTTF agent didn’t question him about purchasing the ticket. Nor did he alert Customs Border Patrol when Tamerlan went in and out of Dagestan in 2012.

Even though the JTTF officer claims that some of this information may have been passed along on a Post-It note, there are no records of the Post-It in question. In fact, there are no records that the JTTF officer communicated any information about Tsarnaev’s travel plans—which perfectly matched the warnings from the FSB—to anyone.

When the FSB sent yet another tip to the CIA in September 2011, the CIA forwarded the message to the FBI. The bureau, noting that a JTTF agent questioned Tamerlan once before, declined to do a follow-up investigation.

September of 2011 was also the same month as the gruesome murder of Tsarnaev’s former friend, Brendan Mess. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, three men were found in a Waltham apartment with their throats slit. A local Waltham investigator said it was “the worst bloodbath I have ever seen,” and compared the crime scene to “an Al-Qaeda training video.”

Though several friends of the victims say they provided local police with Tamerlan’s name as someone who was close to the victims, Tamerlan was never questioned about the case.

Had the FBI shared their information and had local law enforcement known Tamerlan Tsarnaev to be a potential terrorist threat, would they have questioned him about the 9/11/11 murder? We can’t know for sure. But there is a possibility that on April 15, 2013, Tsarnaev could have been behind bars instead of planting bombs on the Boston Marathon finish line.

Had follow-up reports and alerts about Tsarnaev’s travels been pursued—or even documented—there’s a chance this devastating crisis may have been averted, too. In fact, the Inspectors General Report shows that agents would have been led to Tamerlan’s YouTube account, in which he had been publicly posting radical videos, had they simply Googled “Tamerlan Tsarnaev” in the month leading up to the bombing.

Before that, Tamerlan was posting videos from the same IP address using the alias “muazseyfullah.”

The carnage caused by the lack of information-sharing between federal officials and local police extends to the events following the attack, as well. The JTTF officer interviewed Tamerlan and was working on the investigation into the marathon attacks, but he was unable to even recognize him from his photo captured on surveillance footage.

Instead, law enforcement released the image to the public, asking for their help in identifying the suspects. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers killed MIT officer Sean Collier, hijacked a car, and engaged in a shootout with Watertown police.

After the bombing, Ed Davis, then Boston police commissioner, told Congress that his office was not made aware of the FBI’s 2011 investigation into Tamerlan or his trips to Dagestan.

“We would have liked to have known,” he said, according to The Boston Globe.

That the FBI had information about the Tsarnaevs that was not shared, despite the existence of terror task forces and intelligence centers, sparked outrage.

“The idea the feds have this information and it’s not shared with state and locals defies why we created the Department of Homeland Security in the first place,” said Michael McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas, according to The Boston Globe.

“We learned over a decade ago the danger in failing to connect the dots,” he said, referring to the government-issued 9/11 Commission Report, which points to a lack of information-sharing among agencies as a reason the U.S. government was unable to stop the Twin Tower attacks.

“My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed,” he said. “We can and we must do better.”

“I’m amazed that the general public in Boston had to identify this guy,” Jeff Duncan, a Republican representative from South Carolina, said at the same 2013 hearing.

“That somebody within the FBI or JTTF didn’t go, ‘Wait a minute. That guy looks familiar. Didn’t we investigate him a couple years ago?’ We had to rely on folks in the Boston community to identify him.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge Rick DesLauriers responded that the BPD had the information on a database called Guardian. Members of the BPD who were on joint terrorism task forces had access to it. But those officers were not necessarily working the 2011 investigation into Tsarnaev. It would be hard for officers to know to look him up without any prior knowledge of his case.

There has since been reporting citing anonymous law enforcement sources that spelling errors and the resistance of Russia to provide more information provided good enough explanation as to why Tamerlan Tsarnaev was never questioned more aggressively. But the intelligence reports themselves don’t highlight either of these things as the root of the problem. The agency’s failure to follow up on a solid tip and share that information with law enforcement was.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment, citing the ongoing bombing trial. Unlike local police officers who stayed to mingle with reporters, Lisa Quinn and Vincent Lisi, special agents in charge of the Secret Service, bolted from the MEMA room.

But the reports are clear: Faulty information-sharing and communication among law enforcement agencies is a big, deadly problem.

Keating has been working on it.

At the end of last year, “The Keating Provision” passed into law. The provision compels the FBI, DHS, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to assess the Memoranda of Understanding—or the intelligence-sharing agreement between federal, state, and local law enforcement. Basically, the provision gets agencies to keep records of what they are and are not sharing.

It’s not a solution to the information-sharing problem, but at least the provision sets a foundation for one.

“We don’t want a situation where they are pointing fingers at each other anymore,” says Keating, who hopes the MOUs will clear up confusion about things like lost Post-It notes about future terrorists.

At first, members of Congress said the FBI was stonewalling their inquiries into the agency’s own pre-attack Tsarnaev investigation. But Keating says FBI Director James Comey, who was sworn in five months after the bombings, has since sat down with him and is now open to discussions on how to improve the process.

In the meantime, Keating says, the FBI and local police have been meeting regularly for what he calls “scrubs,” in which local police and the FBI discuss investigations.

But while those meetings are helpful, they aren’t mandatory.

“One of the major things we want to do is build on that and institutionalize that,” says Keating. He fears that—without rules about information-sharing set in stone—the weekly meetings may go by the wayside with any turnover in the agency.

“Leadership changes all the time,” he says.

He’s also working to expand local law enforcement’s access to Guardian, and to hire more analysts with the sole job of searching through database systems, freeing up time for other officers to do on-the-ground police work.

And while Congress may be taking baby steps toward filling the intelligence gaps that allowed Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to leave a trail of radicalization on YouTube before they set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon, Alben’s message still stands: The lack of communication among law enforcement agencies is a problem too often ignored.