The Marathon Trial: An Assessment of FBI and NSA’s Online Investigations

There are a number of journalists doing a superb job of live-tweeting the Boston Marathon trial (I’m following @JimArmstrongWBZ, @susanzalkind, and @GlobeCullen, among others).

On top of gruesome details from survivors about the injuries they suffered, FBI witnesses have provided some interesting details on the investigation. For example, we’ve learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother used TMobile phones the day of the attack, though Dzhokhar’s handset had been set up just days earlier.

That the brothers used TMobile is significant because the NSA boasted it had used the phone dragnet to contact chain the brothers after the attack. But anonymous sources claiming the dragnet is not comprehensive have claimed the dragnet doesn’t pull in TMobile records. Given that Basaaly Moalin is the only other person with whom the phone dragnet was deemed a success, and he also had a TMobile phone, the claim that NSA is not getting TMobile calls (which is distinct from whether they’re getting call records from TMobile) is likely bullshit.

Dzhokhar had two Twitter accounts. Both of them — @j_tsar and @Al_firdausiA — link up to his Gmail account. And he also had a Yahoo account.

FBI Agent Steven Kimball, who introduced all this evidence, doesn’t appear to have explained how he connected all these together, which is significant because they likely could have done it via NSA databases before criminally subpoenaing Twitter and Google.

Anyway, those data points are ones we can return to as we get more information. The truly appalling revelation, however, came when Dzhokhar attorney Miriam Conrad cross-examined Kimball after he had introduced a bunch of tweets claiming they were evidence of the defendant’s jihadist intent.

Turns out they were less evidence of jihadist intent than that Dzhokhar consumes the same pop culture many other Americans his age consume (along with a Russian rap artist). Conrad not only showed that the Kimball had no idea what he had been looking at, but hadn’t even clicked through the links Dzhokhar had included to figure out what they meant.

She asked Kimball if he knew the tweet “I Shall Die Young” was from a Russian rap song.

He did not.

Were you aware, she continued, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted a link to that song?


The day before, the prosecution had gone to great lengths to point out one of Tsarnaev’s tweets that said, “September 10th baby, you know what tomorrow is. Party at my house!” It suggested someone tasteless if not cruel, someone who celebrated 9/11.

But Conrad asked Kimball if he knew that the line was from a sketch on a Comedy Central show? He didn’t.

While Conrad didn’t say, it was from a segment called “Things You Don’t Yell When Entering a Room” from the Tosh.O show, which is popular with college kids who like to sit around their dorm rooms getting high. Which is precisely the picture that the defense wants the jury to imagine. Not some jihadi wannabe kneeling on a prayer mat in front of a poster of Osama bin Laden, but some stoner down at UMass Dartmouth, watching Tosh with his buds and a bowl.

In fact, so the jury would get that picture, Conrad asked FBI Special Agent Steve Kimball if he knew what the word “cooked” meant in one of Tsarnaev’s tweets.

“I assume, like, crazy?” Kimball guessed.

He guessed wrong. It means the same as baked. High. Stoned.

About the only Twitter phrase Kimball correctly IDed was LOL.

Conrad also showed that Kimball misidentified the account photo on Dzhokhar’s twitter accounts as coming from Mecca, when it in fact came from Grozny.

“You said the picture [that forms the background of the second account] was a picture of Mecca,” said Conrad, towards the end of a lengthy and tense cross-examination.

“Yes, to the best of my knowledge,” answered Kimball.

“Did you bother to look at a picture of Mecca?” Conrad shot back.


“Would it surprise you to learn that it is a picture of Grozny?”

The picture on the account is not of Mecca – the FBI had misidentified it. It is in fact a picture of the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny.

Let me be clear: While it was funny to see Conrad carve up the prosecution’s witness, that’s not, by itself, going to save Dzhokhar’s life (nor should it, if that’s what the jury decides is appropriate punishment).

But this does betray a real methodological problem with the FBI’s approach to interpreting Twitter content that goes well beyond this trial. If the FBI believes it doesn’t even have to click a link to understand a Tweet — a pretty egregious Twitter faux pas even for people just conversing — it suggests a lot of their profiling may be based off baseless overdetermined interpretations.

18 replies
  1. phred says:

    If the FBI lacks the skills to properly interpret the language and cultural references in electronic discourse in the United States, how is it remotely possible that our intelligence agencies in general have the necessary grasp of myriad languages and cultural references needed for proper interpretation of such communications globally?
    This is as damning for the dragnet as it can possibly be. Even once they “collect it all” there is no reason to believe that they can even begin to understand it all.

    • lefty665 says:

      @phred “This is as damning for the dragnet as it can possibly be. Even once they “collect it all” there is no reason to believe that they can even begin to understand it all.”
      There’s some ‘they’s out there who understand. ‘They’ are the ones who put it together for the FBI and tied it up with a pretty bow. ‘They’ are likely rolling their eyes and muttering variations on “Moron, all you had to do was click on the link, just one mouse click. It would have saved you a lot of embarrassment”. Half cooked.

      • greengiant says:

        Delegation is a key organizational method of hierarchical organizations. Kimball seems to have been in over his head as some prosecutorial afterthought in lieu of revealing the real time monitors. The bow tiers probably let it be known to Kimball it was Mecca just for the dust cloud effect.

  2. seedeevee says:

    “While it was funny to see Conrad carve up the prosecution’s witness, that’s not, by itself, going to save Dzhokhar’s life (nor should it, if that’s what the jury decides is appropriate punishment).”

    Wow. Did not think Marcy Wheeler would be a Capital Punishment supporter.

    Good to know, Sad to read.

    • emptywheel says:

      I’m not. I am, however, generally a supporter of the institution of juries. And so long as I think the judge has ensured a fair trial (not clear in this case), I think you gotta support the decision of the jury.

  3. RUKidding says:

    I’m one of “those” who is skeptical, at best, about whom Pres Obama publically declared “Guilty” before even being charged, Tsarnaev brothers. Seems to me that it is at least *possible* that this was yet another Fibbie sting op gone bad, but of course, the Feebs would want to scramble to do a massive CYA.
    I won’t go on. There’s loads of info out there about how skeevy this case is, also loaded with equally stupid “mistakes” like those highlighted above made by the FEEBS, who seem to excel at being wrong about their choices for “guilty” before trial victims, as well as being incredibly clueless about a lot of pretty basic stuff – like someone doesn’t check a photo of Grozny and claims it’s Mecca??? Really.
    For the record, I duly note that every single “report” from National Propaganda Radio about the trial begins with a variation on this phrase: “In today’s trial of ADMITTED GUILTY Drzhohkar Tsarnaev….” Yeah, yeah… a quibble, but there seems to be a real effort by many agencies, including the President, to make good ‘n sure that Tsarnaev is viewed as and found guilty “as charged.”
    Just saying…

  4. bloopie2 says:

    “There are a number of journalists doing a superb job of live-tweeting the Boston Marathon trial.” Anyone you can point us to who is doing good daily summaries, rather than live tweets? thanks.

  5. jonf says:

    This may not be so “funny” for Kimball. Does he and his boss still have a job today and will they tomorrow?

  6. lefty665 says:

    FBI still can’t pour piss out of a boot. Why would anyone expect that to change?
    @jonf – not only will they have jobs, but likely ride the glory from obtaining the conviction to promotions.

  7. Evangelista says:

    In most trial situations I object to gory descriptions of damages done, bodies mangled, etc. It has nothing to do with the central issues a Fair Trial depends on, and the introduction of emotion-arousing irrelevance interferes with the sound judgment of facts, on factual basis that cornerstones fair trial.
    But in a bombing event trial, particularly a bombing event acknowledged to have been motivated by previous bombing events, and public indifference to the damages, I think the introduction is relevant and germane to defense: The fact that the same damages, manglings, etc. were inflicted previously against equally innocent third parties is extremely significant, and, in my opinion, constitutes justification and provocation.
    I hope the defense makes the most of it. I would advise introducing drone-strikes by Obama/CIA/USA/et al, even to the point of censure (comes after multiple judicial reprimands).
    It can be defined a civil alternative to the Da-Esh graphics of slaughtering orange-jump-suited “enemy-combattants” and burning Hellfire-missile-fire assisting military pilots. If the civilized version works it will discount the Da-Esh version, if the civil effort fails, it will justify the Da-Esh method.
    Give people a choice, you know, which method we prefer to learn from. Of course, the answer we have from history is it takes the Da-Esh and retaliatory war, the pressure-cooker bomb at the Boston version of an Islamic wedding, to get the “peace-loving” peoples’ attentions…

  8. reliably says:

    Also recommend Russ Baker’s reports, as linked above. His WhoWhatWhy site has done an excellent job going in-depth on the bombing story from the very beginning.

  9. TBob says:

    Biggest bunch of incompetent blowhards on this planet. We’re talking US intelligence community here. Wanna give them a test? Give all the three-letter agencies one task. Full budgets. One year time limit. They pass, they survive. Fail, and it’s over…right now…start again from stratch.

    The test? Enforce the no-call list. That’s all they have to do.

    I’m betting they couldn’t pull it off.

  10. pdaly says:

    Great catches, emptywheel.
    Because Dzhokhar’s lawyers capitulated and stated ‘he did it’ I assume we won’t learn more details about the heavy Tsarnaev backpacks the cab driver Jim Duggan in Malden, MA lifted into his car April 14 when taking the Tsarnaev brothers from Malden Station to Cambridge ‘near Kendall Square.’

  11. wallace says:

    Not to change the subject, but it’s too bad Ibragim Todashev can’t be called as a witness. I’m sure he could have provided some interesting insight into FBI interrogation this…

    quote”Taramov said his friend(Todashev) had told him he had a bad feeling about the direction the investigation was heading.

    “He felt like there’s going to be a setup … bad setup against him. Because he told me, ‘They are making up such crazy stuff, I don’t know … why they doing it. OK, I’m answering the questions, but they are still making up some, like, connections, some crazy stuff. I don’t know why they are doing it.’ ”

    A “bad setup”??? By the FBI? Naw…really? whudda thunk? (insert rolling eyes smiley here?

    hmmm. . Seems to me I read a similar scenario by..let’s see..who was that? Oh yeah…

    In fact, there are so many unanswered questions revolving around Todashev’s involvement with Tsarnaev, notwithstanding his death at the hands of the FBI.

    For instance. According to the article at the link..
    quote”Ibragim Todashev, who died during the interview with authorities, not only confessed to his direct role in slashing the throats of three people in Waltham, Massachusetts, but also fingered Tsarnaev in the deaths, the official said Wednesday.A second law enforcement official confirmed Todashev made the confession.
    Investigators of the crime reported at the time that the heads of the three victims were pulled back and their throats slit ear to ear with great force. Marijuana was spread over the bodies in a “symbolic gesture,” and several thousand dollars in cash was found at the scene.
    Todashev told investigators the men were killed during a drug ripoff because he and Tsarnaev were afraid they would be able to identify them and tell police what happened, according to a law enforcement source.”unquote

    WTF? If someone was trying to pull off a “drug ripoff”, WHY would they leave the very thing they were trying to “rip off”, let alone the money, especially after murdering three people? Doesn’t make a bit of sense. Nor does his murder.

    But I have a hunch. A big stinking rat hunch. But I won’t go there.

    Carry on.

  12. wallace says:

    Holy shit. My bad. I should have read this link blueskybigstar provided first:

    Hmmm, especially this…

    quote:But the government’s own story called into question the behavior of law enforcement officials in the same case. Despite the fact that Tamerlan’s link to the murder victims was known then, it appears he was never questioned about the crime. This is just one of the many inexplicable mysteries surrounding Tamerlan’s pre-bombing relationship with authorities.

    Now, prosecutors in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have delivered a shocking reversal. They admit to having no evidence that his dead brother, Tamerlan, was involved in the slayings.But how solid was this evidence linking the Tsarnaevs to Waltham? All but nonexistent. We know that because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team in the bombing trial asked prosecutors to share the proof they had of Tamerlan’s involvement in the Waltham murders.”unquote

    And this…
    quote:In terms of incrimination, all that’s left is the confession by the dead friend of Tamerlan’s, Ibragim Todashev. Which also appears, on close scrutiny, to raise more questions than it answers.

    In fact, Boston Magazine uncovered an important inconsistency in Todashev’s description of the crime scene that calls its legitimacy into question. Due to an improper redaction which made the confession public, the magazine was able to compare Todashev’s written description of the victims with what the first eyewitness encountered at the crime scene.

    Taped or Not Taped

    When referring to the three victims, Todashev wrote in broken English that “we taped their hands up.” (Please see a photo of the handwritten confession here).

    But the first eyewitness to the gruesome scene, Hiba Eltilib, girlfriend of Brendan Mess, said otherwise: “None of their hands were tied as I recall,” she said in an interview.

    So here we have another example of the authorities’ early assertions about the Tsarnaevs looking suspiciously shaky under close scrutiny. The Tsarnaevs’ imputed connection to the Waltham murders rests on nothing but a questionable confession by a friend — a man who was later shot down by an FBI investigator while being interrogated. And dead men tell no tales.”unquote

    Indeed. Dead men tell no tales. You betcha…I’ve got a big stinking rat hunch what that tale would prove.

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