The Boston Bombers: Who Knew What When

April 30, 2013

This combination of undated photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers and suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing killed an MIT police officer, injured a transit officer in a firefight and threw explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar at large on Friday, April 19, 2013. He was captured later that night.

One of the most devastating revelations in the wake of 9/11 was that U.S. intelligence agencies had key pieces of information on the would-be hijackers — but didn’t share them with each other in time to prevent the attack.

Since then, the U.S. has poured billions of dollars into federal and private-sector infrastructure to gather intelligence that could help prevent another attack. It created the new department of Homeland Security, and an overarching Director of National Intelligence.

But a government watchdog flagged the government’s information-sharing problem as a “high risk” as recently as January. The report by the Government Accountability Office found that the government’s leadership is “committed” to better managing and sharing information on terrorism and terror suspects. “However, the federal government has not yet estimated and planned for the resources needed to resolve risks or fill gaps in the planning they have undertaken,” it said. (Full report here (pdf).)

The Boston Marathon bombings were the first successful domestic attacks since 9/11, and reignited concerns in Congress about whether the new intel system was working after reports emerged that Russian authorities had warned the FBI and the CIA separately about one of the attackers two years ago.

“There still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) told reporters after a Senate intelligence committee briefing on the bombings. “That is troubling to me, that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001 that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies but also within the same agency in one case.”

Last week, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, defended the intelligence network, telling Wired that finding self-radicalized terrorists, as the Tsarnaev brothers appear to have been, before they strike would be a major infringement on Americans’ privacy.

“The rules were abided by, as best as I can tell at this point,” Clapper said. “The dots were connected.”

But on Monday, Clapper ordered a broad review into how the nation’s spy agencies handled information on the bombers before the attack.

President Barack Obama said in a rare press conference Tuesday that such a review was routine, and important to determine whether there might be “additional protocols and procedures” to prevent a future attack. But, he added, “Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties; Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing.”

Here’s a look at what we know so far about what U.S. intelligence knew about the oldest brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and when they knew it:

March 2011

Russia’s Federal Security Service alerts the FBI to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, saying that they believed he was a “follower of radical Islam and a strong believer” and might be prepared to join underground groups in Dagestan.

The FBI begins looking into Tsarnaev: whom he calls, what sites he looks at online, whom he meets, where he’s traveled, what he might be planning. The FBI also conducts interviews with Tsarnaev and his family, but turns up no indications of terrorist activity. Tsarnaev is added to two federal databases, including the Terrorist Screening Database, which contains biographical information.

September 2011

Russia’s Federal Security Service alerts the CIA in late September 2011 to Tsarnaev, noting that they believe he has become radicalized and might be planning to travel overseas. The information is “nearly identical” to what Russian authorities gave the FBI.

October 2011

Information on Tsarnaev is passed to CIA headquarters on Oct. 4.

Two weeks later, CIA asks the National Counterterrorism Center, which serves as a data clearinghouse, to put Tsarnaev on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, or TIDE, which sends info to other lists, including the FBI’s main terrorist screening database.

January 2012

Homeland Security notes that Tsarnaev flew to Dagestan on Jan. 12, 2012. But the FBI isn’t alerted because his name is spelled wrong on the airline passenger list.

Mid- 2012

When Tsarnaev returns six months later, his return to the U.S. goes unnoticed. “The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security chief told reporters last week. “By the time he returned, all investigations in the matter had been closed.”

Sources: The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press

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