WASHINGTON – 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 (TIDE), which 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 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.
The CIA declined to comment on its role in the case. A U.S. intelligence official said that the agency had “nominated (Tsarnaev) for inclusion in the watch-listing 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 the information that Russia provided to the CIA was “nearly identical” to that 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 Tsarnaev was an Islamist militant who might seek to carry out a terrorist attack in Russia.
Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, immigrated to the United States about a decade ago, but their family had ties to Chechnya, a region where Muslim separatists have been engaged in a bloody conflict with Russian authorities 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 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 Tsarnaev’s name was listed in that 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 U.S. authorities had flagged Tsarnaev’s departure, but not his return.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Napolitano said at a Senate hearing. “By the time he returned, all investigations had been closed.”
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 the 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 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 it was aware that 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.
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.
The elder Tsarnaev “did not come anywhere close to being a selectee” for the U.S. no-fly list, an American intelligence official said. Asked what might have changed if his return had been called to the FBI’s attention, the official replied, “Probably nothing.”