Why Isn’t the NSA Evaluating Why It Didn’t Have Chechen Intelligence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

As I noted last week, four Inspectors General are conducting (an indefinitely delayed) review of their Agencies’ handing of intelligence in advance of the Boston Marathon attack. But just four Agencies are involved:

  • Intelligence Community
  • CIA
  • DOJ
  • DHS

That is, the NSA’s Inspector General is not participating in the review.

And while I understand that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s domestic communications could not have been collected by NSA (and presumably none of the people from Dagestan and Chechnya with whom he had contact were selected as identifiers for the Section 215 dragnet), he still allegedly had contacts while in Russia with fairly prominent extremists. And there are two reasons why NSA might have collected Chechen contacts of Tamerlan’s: both because extremists in Chechnya have ties to al Qaeda (indeed, a number of them are and were fighting in Syria), and because Chechen mobsters have ties to the mobs being targeted under Obama’s Transnational Criminal Organization initiative.

So did the NSA have anything on the Chechens Tamerlan allegedly met with? In any case, wouldn’t it be worth a review of what they have and what they might have had?

Apparently not, at least according to the IC.

There is precedent for protecting the NSA from such retroactive scrutiny. Recall that the 9/11 Commission barely touched what files the NSA might have had.

[T]he 9/11 Commission, which went out of business in 2004, failed to conduct a thorough inspection of the government’s most important library of raw intelligence on al Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. And nobody appears to have inspected that intelligence since.

The archives, maintained by the National Security Agency at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, were reviewed—in a cursory fashion—only in the final days of the commission’s investigation, and then only because of last-minute staff complaints that the NSA’s vast database was being ignored.

Throughout its investigation, staffers complained, the commission’s leaders were fixated on what could be found in the terrorism files of the CIA and the FBI, the two big targets for criticism in the panel’s final report, and largely ignored the NSA, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency.

[snip]

“It’s always been frightening to me to consider what is still at the NSA, whatever we never had time to see,” said a former commission staff member, who now works elsewhere in the federal government and is barred from speaking to the press for attribution. “It’s kind of shocking to me that no one has tried to get back in there since. We certainly didn’t see everything at NSA.”

And I can imagine why, particularly after Edward Snowden started leaking, the NSA might not want to check whether it had data it simply missed. How embarrassing if it had to admit that it missed a terrorist because its haystack has gotten too big?

Still, given the allegations about Tamerlan’s entirely foreign associates, I’m not convinced the NSA would have collected nothing.

Keith Alexander today claimed NSA used the Section 215 database in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack (though how they claimed the allegedly self-radicalized Tsarnaev’s had ties to Al Qaeda, I don’t know) to chase down potential associates in NYC.

“We did use [Section] 215,” he said, referring to the Patriot Act provision that the government has claimed a federal court has agreed gives it the authority to collect data on practically all calls made in the United States. “We used it to support the FBI in their investigation.”

So the NSA was involved in the investigation, at least.

So can’t we have a teensy review to see if it did, and if our target selection in Chechnya and Dagestan and appropriate?

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.

12 replies
  1. seedeevee says:

    Perhaps a “review” would find that many of the Chechens are our and the Saudi’s freedom figh, er, terrorists.

    That would not look too good.

  2. shoirca says:

    “I can imagine why… the NSA might not want to check whether it had data it simply missed.”

    PBS’s Nova aired a show called “Spy Factory” in which they discussed NSA eavesdropping and how the NSA had been tracking the 9/11 hijackers but refused to share the information with the FBI:

    “JAMES BAMFORD: Incredibly, the NSA never informed the FBI that these calls were coming from the United States, and we may never know why. No one from NSA will discuss it, and the 9/11 Commission never investigated it. They either didn’t realize the two terrorists were calling from the United States—which is hard to believe because even I have caller I.D., which shows where calls are coming from—or what’s more likely is that they ignored it because then they would have had to hand the contacts over to the FBI.”

    and earlier:

    “NARRATOR: In late December, 1999, NSA finds one very important dot: it intercepts an alarming call to the house in Yemen, instructing two Al Qaeda foot soldiers to fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for what sounds like a terrorist summit. The foot soldiers are Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. This is the phone call that sets in motion the 9/11 attacks.

    JAMES BAMFORD: After picking up this critical call, NSA passed on their first names to the FBI and the CIA but not their last names. Nawaf’s last name had been in the NSA’s database for over a year, because of his association with bin Laden’s operations center in Yemen, but apparently the NSA never looked it up….NARRATOR: The CIA does find al-Mihdhar’s name in its database….NARRATOR: Fearing an Al Qaeda terrorist may be headed to the U.S., the agents are determined to tell the FBI, but a CIA official will not allow it.

    MARK ROSSINI: I guess I was the more senior agent. So I went up to the individual that had the ticket on the Yemeni cell, the Yemeni operatives. And I said to her, I said, “What’s going on? You know, we’ve got to tell the Bureau about this. These guys clearly are bad. One of them, at least, has a multiple-entry visa to the U.S. We’ve got to tell the FBI.”

    And then she said to me, “No, it’s not the FBI’s case, not the FBI’s jurisdiction.”

    So I go tell Doug. And I’m like, “Doug, what can we do?” If we had picked up the phone and called the Bureau, I would have been violating the law. I would have broken the law. I would have been removed from the building that day. I would have had my clearances suspended, and I would be gone.

    JAMES BAMFORD: This is one of the most astonishing parts of the story. The CIA had FBI operatives working within their bin Laden unit, but when the FBI operatives found out that one, and possibly two, of the terrorists had visas to the United States, were heading for the United States,the CIA wouldn’t let them tell their headquarters that they were coming. ”

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/spy-factory.html

  3. shoirca says:

    “extremists in Chechnya have ties to al Qaeda (indeed, a number of them are and were fighting in Syria), and because Chechen mobsters have ties to the mobs being targeted under Obama’s Transnational Criminal Organization initiative.”

    Isn’t the Chechen Mafia also moving heroin out of Afghanistan into Russia and Europe and splitting the profits to fund A.Q/Taliban fighters in Afghanistan?

  4. jo6pac says:

    @shoirca: Yes and they just about removed the Russian mob out of Moscow, driving Putin crazy. The Chechnya have ties to Amerikan NGO. Hell the house of said told Putin they would unleash the Chechnya on the Olympics if they didn’t stop helping Syria.
    The Chechnya mob is Amerikas friend.

  5. jo6pac says:

    @RexFlex: Thanks for the link I remember reading that back then and it looks like Treason to me but then I’m a serf and they are the one with the power.

  6. orionATL says:

    the question ew asks is extremely important to have answered.

    why?

    because every single time in the past the “intelligence” community (fbi, cia, nsa, dhs, et al.) have fuccup-ed, they have immediately taken the offensive and claimed they were hindered in their otherwise timely competence, by other gov’t agencies, by the courts (including fisa), by the laws, by lack of presidentially authorized discretion, or by the congress.

    name me one, just one, intelligence gathering agency allowed (extremely unwisely i would argue) to operate in secrecy, to be funded in secrecy, to be evaluated in secrecy

    which has ever said “it was us who fuccup-ed”.

    the central group of leaders of each of these agencies haven’t just frequently not gotten their protective job done;

    they have repeatedly found scapegoats to blame for their failure,

    or have shouted “boo!” to the public and its elected officials in order to distract from their failures.

    so –

    the american public really needs the info ig’s could provide.

    it is a measure of the debased state of the obama presidency that such reports will not be forthcoming.

  7. bevin says:

    Maybe the American public ought to consider the possibility that the NSA is not being candid about its indifference to the movements and actions of foreigners inclined towards terrorism. It has enough on its plate keeping tabs on 300 odd million Americans, friendly governments, foreign owned corporations and commercial rivals of the Chamber of Commerce.
    As to amateur bomb makers from the grubbier neighbourhoods of the Caucasus and Arabia- most of whom are not unknown to the CIA etc- they are not really worried.
    Should they be?

  8. joanneleon says:

    Off topic: I just read two articles on the new Just Security blog. I read, from several sources, that this blog was going to be left leaning or civil libertarian leaning. I’ve only read two pieces there and neither strike me as either left or civil libertarian leaning.

    This latest one by Harold Koh is a neocon trainwreck, IMHO. I’m really disappointed so far.

    Syria and the Law of Humanitarian Intervention (Part I: Political Miscues and U.S. Law)
    http://justsecurity.org/2013/09/26/koh-syria/

    The other one was on cybersecurity and international law.

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