Tamerlan Tsarnaev Placed in Database Perceived as Weak, Even by DHS

As the blame game starts on the Boston Marathon bombing, someone (maybe a blabby Senator?) made it public that the CIA asked to have Tamerlan Tsarnaev added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database last year.

The CIA asked the main U.S. counterterrorism agency to add the name of one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers to a watch list more than a year before the attack, according to U.S. officials.

The agency took the step after Russian authorities contacted officials there 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 and could be planning to travel overseas. The CIA requested that his name be put on a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

That database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, is a data storehouse that feeds a series of government watch lists, including the FBI’s main Terrorist Screening Database and the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” list.

Officials said Tsarnaev’s name was added to the database but it’s unclear which agency added it.

We got a look at the TIDE database last year when Tom Coburn reviewed whether fusion centers do useful work. Here’s what that report said about TIDE:

While reporting information on an individual who is listed in the TIDE database sounds significant, the Subcommittee found that DHS officials tended to be skeptical about the value of such reporting, because of concerns about the quality of data contained in TIDE.156

156 Although NCTC describes its TIDE database as holding information on the identities of known and suspected terrorists, DHS officials – who interacted with TIDE data on a daily basis, as they reviewed reporting not only from state and local law enforcement encounters but from encounters by DHS components – said they found otherwise. “Not everything in TIDE is KST,” DHS privacy official Ken Hunt told the Subcommittee, using a shorthand term for “known or suspected terrorist.”

Would you buy a Ford?” one DHS Senior Reports Officer asked the Subcommittee staff during an interview, when he was asked how serious it was for someone to be a match to a TIDE record. “Ford Motor Company has a TIDE record.”

[snip]

Ole Broughton headed Intelligence Oversight at I&A from September 2007 to January 2012. In an interview with the Subcommittee, Mr. Broughton expressed the concern DHS intelligence officials felt working with TIDE data. In one instance, Mr. Broughton recalled he “saw an individual’s two-year-old son [identified] in an [Homeland Intelligence Report]. He had a TIDE record.” Mr. Broughton believed part of the problem was that intelligence officials had routinely put information on “associates” of known or suspected terrorists into TIDE, without determining that that person would qualify as a known or suspected terrorist. “We had a lot of discussion regarding ‘associates’ in TIDE,” Mr. Broughton said.

[my emphasis]

This is not to say that Tamerlan shouldn’t be in TIDE.

Rather, it says there’s so much other crap in TIDE, that it isn’t perceived as very useful — at least not by the people at DHS the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations interviewed.

This is the problem with overcollection of data: it adds a bunch more hay to the haystack for the time you want to start looking for a needle.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    There are a lot of people that seem to think there’s only the ‘no fly’ list, and that he’s on that one. But there are also a lot of people (and some the same ones) who think that the government was in on the whole thing (because how else could they have escaped capture for four whole days) or that people on assistance can’t buy firearms.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    This New York Times latest article has the best breakdown of the events that I’ve read so far – Officer’s Killing Spurred Pursuit in Boston Attack (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/25/us/officers-killing-spurred-pursuit-in-boston-attack.html?pagewanted=1&hp).

    Some of the details that provide more clarity are:

    Law enforcement has video of two people approaching Sean Collier’s police car (and perhaps his shooting), but law enforcement says the faces aren’t clearly shown.

    This might be one of the reasons there is nothing about the killing of Sean Collier in the criminal complaint. Another reason may be that with the supposed shooter Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead, and the faces not clear in the video, there simply isn’t enough evidence yet at this time to make a case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an accomplice.

    There was only a single gun located at any of the crime scenes by law enforcement. Law enforcement believes that only Tamerlan Tsarnaev used the gun.

    The owner of the carjacked Mercedes SUV did leave his cellphone in the car and law enforcement used it to track the vehicle. That doesn’t explain who did the tracking and it doesn’t explain why there was a greater law enforcement presence at the Watertown firefight.

  3. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: In my last sentence, I meant to say it doesn’t explain why there wasn’t a greater law enforcement presence at the Watertown firefight.

  4. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: To further clarify my last comment, the cellphone tracking of the carjacked Mercedes SUV still doesn’t make sense. Why would only the Watertown police be the first responders?

    The carjacking of the Mercedes SUV took place in Cambridge. It’s outside of the Watertown police jurisdiction, so why would the Watertown police even know about it unless some other law enforcement organization instituted the cellphone tracking and they passed the location information to the Watertown police. If that is the case, where were the FBI, Massachusetts State Police, and all of the other involved law enforcement agencies?

  5. Snoopdido says:

    In Emptywheel’s previous post, I also raised the issue of the reported 200+ rounds expended during the Watertown firefight. I’ve had some additional thoughts on the matter:

    As I commented then, I’m skeptical that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, with only the single gun, would have been able to fire off 200+ rounds. For example, if he had 10 round ammunition clips, that would be 20 or more clips used. That is an enormous number of clips to swap out in the middle of a firefight. That is an enormous number of clips to manage to haul around (even if his brother was going to the second car to get more ammunition).

    In looking at the timestamps in Andrew Kitzenberg’s pictures of the Watertown firefight, it goes from approximately 12:45am EST to 12:50:57 EST when Dzhokhar Tsanaev drives the carjacked Mercedes SUV at the officer vehicles and then drives away.

    In total, Kitzenberg’s pictures show that the elapsed time of the Watertown firefight was approximately 5 minutes or so in total. That doesn’t seem to realistically allow Tamerlan Tsarnaev to fire 200+ rounds and swap out perhaps 20 clips of ammunition.

  6. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: One other interesting point in that New York Times article:

    “Police officials initially said the boat was in the backyard of a house just outside the perimeter of the area where investigators had conducted door-to-door searches all day. But Commissioner Davis, of the Boston police, said this week that the boat had been inside the perimeter.”

  7. der says:

    – “TIDE database as holding information on the identities of known and suspected terrorists…”

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev is dead and even if he was still alive there’s no technique I’m aware of that could or would open his skull to look inside his head for the answers. If he knew he was being “suspected” of terrorism and saw that as the reason his citizenship application was turned down and that Russia was concerned about his politics would that be enough to set him off?

    His religious radicalism, to me, is a distraction. Having been involved in more than enough new age “spiritual find yourself” workshops to see that for some a few months is all it takes to “find god” and from that discovery become a passionate preacher of the new way (whatever the hell that is, my catholic skepticism in all matters spiritual, new or old, kept me at arms length and with one foot out the door).

    Was Tamerlan just a pissed off man without a country who decided to make his suspected terrorism a reality? His younger brother would likely not be able to say, though doubtful he would think this. At that age I thought my older brother could do no wrong and was one of the wisest and smartest people I knew…until he wasn’t. Which didn’t happen until I grew up and had enough life experience to see otherwise (which isn’t to excuse Dzhokar’s part in this terrible tragedy).

    A lot of time will be spent throwing bones and searching for hidden answers to Tamerlan’s radical terrorist actions with little results because, IMO, in all likelihood it was simply criminal murder. With over 14,000 murders yearly what do our great and powerful leaders do? Outlaw carrying backpacks in public places?

  8. Teddy says:

    Well, not adding hay to the haystack when a neighboring farmer (CIA) asks you to add it certainly leaves the FBI open to charges of ‘not connecting the dots’ and kind of puts the lie to their reasoning that ‘we did everything we could under the law.’ Not that that will prevent them from burdening themselves will all kinds of new collection tech and procedures, none of which will be followed 100% and none of which will help them ID the next bad guy and prevent his crime.

  9. rg says:

    It is one thing for an innocent suspect to be placed on a watch list; it’s quite another to be placed on a no-fly list. Fear-inspired power gone amok.

  10. Peter Kizer says:

    I will give you that there MIGHT have been too much hay to pay much attention to those two needles (the Boston Bombing Brothers); but what really fries my grits is that so many resources are spent on investigated people who are not on any list (nofly, or otherwise). To wit: my wife was recently sworn in as a Naturalized Citizen; I am native born, honorably served my country (USMC), and have been working at the same (very large) company for nearly 27 years – in other words: I do have a well documented history. I could not believe how long and painful the route was to get her to the point where DHS would approve her petition for citizenship. Years of time, no doubt a large number of cube dwellers (I, too, sit in front of a computer screen – so that’s not meant as a slam) reviewed her file, my file, our file. As big as the check was that I had to write (several checks, actually), I am sure the cost to the gov’t (hah! to me, the taxpayer) was enormous. Meanwhile, people who have been identified as “bad guys”, or worthy of note, come and go as easy as they please. Focus on the problem, Uncle Sam. Actually prioritize. You don’t need to connect all the dots, but you sure need to do a MUCH better job of choosing the dots you’re looking at!!!

  11. P J Evans says:

    It appears that their mother is in TIDE. (The news media haven’t caught on to it being less than useful. They imply that it’s like the no-fly lists.)

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