McCaul, Keating Op-Ed: How did Tsarnaev go off FBI radar?

Mar 27, 2014 Issues: Counterterrorism

The Boston Globe -- by Michael McCaul and Bill Keating

Looking back to last April, we are both saddened by the tragedy that took place on Boylston Street, at MIT, and in Watertown, and encouraged by the resilience seen in Boston since then. An integral part of the recovery process is identifying exactly what went wrong, and how we can improve moving forward.

For the past year, the House Committee on Homeland Security has investigated the events leading up to this attack, and looked at how information about the bombers was communicated before and after the attacks. How did someone who was well known to the FBI go so easily off the radar?

The committee’s bipartisan report outlines Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization and how information was not shared between local, state, and federal agencies, including certain tragic instances where there was potential to detect the threat Tamerlan posed.

The Russian government warned US agencies that Tamerlan was becoming radicalized. The Russian federal police forwarded this information to the FBI, who in turn opened a three-month assessment into Tamerlan.

The FBI’s examination was closed in June 2011, but it led to Tamerlan being added to a list that required him to be screened by Customs and Border Protection when exiting or entering the country. Unfortunately, this additional screening never took place when he traveled overseas.

Tamerlan’s path toward radicalization took many years. After interviewing those who knew him in the United States, as well as officials and journalists overseas, we suspect Tamerlan may have traveled abroad to join extremists in the region of Dagestan, Russia, where he became further committed to their radical causes.

Upon Tamerlan’s return from Russia, the Customs and Border Protection agent on the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force was notified. Whether information regarding his travel was shared with the FBI case agent who previously investigated Tsarnaev, however, is unknown because there is no record of that communication.

Though we can only speculate, ultimately, if Tamerlan had been screened properly — and if information regarding his travel had been shared — the course of history may have been changed.

Additionally, an opportunity was missed when the information about the 2011 FBI investigation into Tamerlan was not shared with the state and local police in Boston. At a Homeland Security hearing last year, former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis acknowledged his office was never notified about the investigation, even in the days after the attack as the manhunt was ongoing.

It is undisputed that the FBI has a long, successful history with terrorism investigations, but state and local police know their city’s streets and residents better than anyone. This knowledge makes them a force multiplier for federal law enforcement’s efforts. Their insight and impact are huge considering that nationwide there are just under 14,000 FBI agents, while in New York alone there are almost 35,000 NYPD officers. Clearly, utilizing local law enforcement expertise will ultimately result in keeping more Americans safe and mitigating the risk of terrorist attacks.

The committee’s report recommends greater access to the Guardian System, which is the FBI’s terrorism database. Joint Terrorism Task Forces and Fusion Centers, which facilitate and coordinate information-sharing among federal, state, and local agencies and include those in Boston, must not be delayed by bureaucracy. It’s not only a case of finding a needle in the haystack; it’s a case of finding the haystack. When information is available, access is only granted after going through an arduous approval process that crosses multiple networks and organizations, which often discourages information sharing, especially in situations when time is of the essence.

Finally, the report addresses the systemic flaws in which the US investigates terrorism cases — most notably the “case-closed” mentality of some FBI officials. The case on Tsarnaev was open for three months. Not long after, we believe he met with extremists in Russia.

Once he returned to the United States, Tamerlan’s assessment was not revisited. Had even a simple Internet search been performed, Tsarnaev’s increased posting of radical propaganda would have been uncovered.

The FBI has repeatedly asserted that even knowing what it now knows, it would not have revisited the Tsarnaev investigation. This case-closed mindset cannot keep pace with the evolving threat of terrorism here at home. Counterterrorism efforts must adapt and evolve to anticipate potential attacks by utilizing local police and watch lists, and by regularly following up when new information points to imminent threats. These efforts may not have prevented the horrific attack last spring, but they just might prevent one in the future.
Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Representative Bill Keating, Democrat of Massachusetts, is a senior member of the committee and ranking member of the House’s Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee.

Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Representative Bill Keating, Democrat of Massachusetts, is a senior member of the committee and ranking member of the House’s Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee.