The Other Possible Whys behind the Boston Marathon Attack

As the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial pauses for the Marathon and the attack anniversary (and, ostensibly, to give the defense time to line up their witnesses), some competing sides have aired their views about the story not being told at the trial.

An odd piece from BoGlo’s Kevin Cullen quotes a cop asking why the FBI Agents who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 did not recognize him from surveillance videos.

“Who were the FBI agents who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev after the Russians raised questions about him two years before the bombings, and why didn’t they recognize Tamerlan from the photos the FBI released?” he asked.

That’s actually a great question. But then Cullen goes onto make some assertions that — if true — should themselves elicit questions, questions he doesn’t ask. He marvels at the video analysis after the event, but doesn’t mention that the FBI claims the facial recognition software it has spent decades developing didn’t work to identify the brothers. He lauds the FBI for finding Dzhokhar’s backpack in a dumpster, but far overstates the value of the evidence found inside (remember, among other things found on a thumb drive in it was a rental application for Tamerlan’s wife). Cullen also overstates the FBI’s evidence that the bombs were made in Tamerlan’s Cambridge apartment, and so sees that as a question about why Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine, wasn’t charged (forgetting, I guess, that she was routinely gone from the apartment 70 hours a week), rather than a question about all the holes in FBI’s pressure cooker story: Why did Tamerlan pay cash for pressure cookers — as FBI suggests he did — all while carrying a mobile GPS device that he brought with him when trying to make his escape? Where did the other two pressure cookers (the third pressure cooker used as a bomb, and the one found at the apartment) come from?

Masha Gessen — who just wrote a book about the case that I have not yet read — asks some of the same questions in a NYT op-ed in a piece that also highlights the government’s flawed claims about radicalization at the core of this case.

Even worse, two critical questions have not been answered. Where were the bombs built? Investigators have testified that they were not built at the older brother’s apartment or in the younger brother’s dorm room. Were they built in someone else’s apartment, house or garage? If so, who, and was he a knowing accomplice? Did he help in any other way?

The other big question is: Why did the F.B.I. fail to identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, who had been fingered as a potential terrorist risk two years before the bombing and interviewed by field agents? Within 24 hours of the bombing, on April 15, 2013, investigators focused on images of the brothers in surveillance tapes recovered from the scene. Yet they had no names — and more than two days later they released the photos to the public, asking for help with identifying the suspects. How is it possible that someone who had been interviewed by a member of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force could not be identified from the pictures?

Note, I think Gessen overstates how strongly the government has said the bombs weren’t made at the Cambridge apartment, but it is consistent with the evidence presented that they weren’t.

Compare these decent questions with Janet Napolitano’s take — not so much on the trial, but on Gessen’s book.

Before I get into the key graph of her review, consider Napolitano’s role here. Her agency — especially Customs and Border Patrol — came in for some criticism in the Joint IG Report on the attack, because they may not have alerted the FBI to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel to and from Russia in 2012, because they treated Tamerlan as a low priority and therefore didn’t question him on his border crossings (the trial record may indicate Tamerlan had Inspire on his computer when he traveled to Russia), and because the CBP record on Tamerlan went into a less visible status while he was out of the country, meaning he evaded secondary inspection on the way back into the country as well. Yet she mentions none of those crucial details about DHS’s role in missing Tamerlan’s travel and increasing extremism in her review.

Rather, she describes her agency as a valiant part of the combined effort to hunt down the attackers.

As secretary of homeland security, I immediately mobilized the department to assist Boston emergency responders and to work with the F.B.I. to identify the perpetrators. Because the Boston Marathon is an iconic American event, we suspected terrorism, but no group stepped forward to claim credit. Massive law enforcement resources — local, state and federal — had to be organized and deployed so that, within just a few days, we had narrowed the inquiry from the thousands of spectators who had come to cheer on the runners to two, who had come to plant bombs.

Only much later in her review does Napolitano makes a defense of the government failure to prevent this attack, though once again she makes no mention of her own agency’s role in failing to stop the attack. As Napolitano tells it, this is about the FBI and it’s just “armchair quaterbacking.”

In the course of armchair quarterbacking that followed the bombing, it was revealed that the Russian Federal Security Service, known as the F.S.B., had notified the F.B.I. in 2011 about Tamerlan’s presence in the United States. Although criticized for inadequate follow-up, the F.B.I. actually interviewed Tamerlan and other household members at least three times in 2011. Further requests to the F.S.B. for details went unanswered. Other than putting Tamerlan under 24-hour surveillance, it is difficult to ascertain what more the F.B.I. could have done — according to Gessen, Russia routinely presumes all young urban Muslim men to be radical.

Much of the rest of Napolitano’s review focuses on the government’s theory of radicalization and the Tsarnaev family’s collective failure to achieve the American Dream (which, I guess, is what Gessen was debunking in her op-ed the next day), returning the story insistently to one about radicalization. Except then, having emphasized how many times the FBI had contact with Tamerlan in 2011, she scoffs at the questions that might raise and Gessen’s reliance on evidence the government itself has introduced into the public record.

In the final chapters, however, the book becomes curiouser and curiouser; Gessen seems to become a conspiracy theorist. She postulates that the F.B.I. recruited Tamerlan as an informant during their visits to the Tsarnaev home in 2011. She then surmises that Tamerlan went rogue and participated in the killing of three friends with whom he dealt marijuana. She goes further, and suggests that after the bombings, the F.B.I. delayed telling Boston law enforcement about Tamerlan’s identity because they wanted to reach him first, kill him and hide his presence as an informant. Gessen likens this alleged behavior to the F.B.I.’s use of sting operations, and she implies that the bureau has been entrapping defendants as opposed to finding real terrorists. And, finally, relying on the words of “several” unnamed explosives experts, she asserts that the Tsarnaevs must have had help constructing the bombs, despite the presence of explicit instructions on the Internet and in Inspire, a jihadist magazine.

How is Gessen a conspiracy theorist because she “surmises that Tamerlan … participated” in the 2011 Waltham killings? That claim came from the FBI itself! The FBI says Ibragim Todashev was confessing to that fact when they killed him. And how is suggesting the bombs used at the Marathon (as distinct from those thrown in Watertown) could not have come directly from Inspire be a conspiracy theory when that is the testimony the defense elicited from FBI’s own bomb expert on cross examination?

Effectively, Janet Napolitano, whose agency rightly or wrongly received some of the criticism for failing to prevent this attack, completely ignores the questions about prevention and then dismisses questions that arise out of the government’s failure to prevent the attack as a conspiracy theory.

Napolitano’s choice to write (and NYT’s choice to publish) a critical review of a book pointing out problems with the narrative of the attack she herself has been pitching actually got me thinking: Imagine Robert Mueller writing such a review? Had he done so, the inappropriateness of it, the absurdity of deeming claims made by the FBI a conspiracy theory, and his own agency’s role in failing to prevent the attack would have been heightened. Not to mention, he likely would have had a hard time dismissing the real questions about the provenance of the bombs, given that his former agency claims not to know the answers to them. And that made me realize that having Napolitano write this review worked similarly to the way the prosecution’s parade of witnesses who hadn’t done the primary analysis on the evidence in the case did. It gave official voice to the chosen narrative, without ever exposing those who might be able to answer the still outstanding questions to question.

For what it’s worth, I have a few more questions about the attack that — like Cullen and Gessen — I regret will likely go unanswered. Or rather, perhaps another theory about the government’s implausible claim not to have IDed the brothers until they got DNA from Tamerlan on April 19th.

As I mentioned, no one wants to talk about why facial recognition didn’t work which — if true — ought to have led to congressional hearings and the defunding of the technology. The FBI wants you to believe that they couldn’t ID a guy they had had in a terrorist watchlist and extended immigration records on and Congress wants you to believe that would be acceptable performance for an expensive surveillance system.

I’ve also tracked the government’s odd use of GPS data in the trial. They used cell tower information based off the brothers’ known handsets (which they only got in smashed condition days later) to track their movement at the race. They used a series of GPS devices to track the purchases of the materials used in the attack and to track the brothers in the stolen Mercedes (though their claims about how they tracked the Mercedes still don’t add up). There’s something missing from this story, and I increasingly wonder whether it’s the use of a Stingray or similar device, which we know even local authorities use in the case of public events like protests or sporting events, which might have been able to pinpoint calls made between phones using the same “cell” at the race, and with it, pinpoint the phones we know were registered under the brothers’ real names.

So here’s my conspiracy theory, Janet Napolitano: Not only do I think claims Tamerlan was an informant ought to be at least assessed seriously (though I also think the Russians clearly are not telling us what they believed him to be, either), which might be one explanation for FBI’s dubious claims not to have IDed the brothers for over 3 days. But I also think the government pursued this case with an eye towards what intelligence they were willing to admit at trial — and we know they refuse to admit how sophisticated their use of Stingrays is, and we should assume they refuse to admit how well facial recognition technology works, either.

That is, in addition to the other real questions and possible explanations for the delay, I think it possible that the FBI had to create a manhunt so as to hide the tools that IDed the brothers far earlier than they let on.

Update: I meant to add that I think the timing of the recent Stingray releases to be curious. Basically, the dam holding back disclosures of the FBI’s secrecy on Stingrays burst on Wednesday, April 8, as the ACLU, Baltimore, and two other jurisdictions got Non-Disclosure Agreements on the same day, after the Tsarnaev case had gone to the jury. That’s as conveniently timed, it seems, as the April 3 release of the After Action report, which Massachusetts had held since December. Also remember that the government doesn’t have to disclose PRTT data to defendants unless it uses that evidence at trial (and has suggested it has PRTT data on other terrorist defendants that it doesn’t have to turn over). So if they did use a Stingray to ID the brothers at all, they would claim they didn’t have to disclose it, but wouldn’t want to make the capability too obvious until after the defense lost any opportunity to make a constitutional claim.

16 replies
  1. Romancing the Loan says:

    But if that’s the case why have a trial at all? He would have pled guilty to LWOP and then they don’t have to risk revealing anything about Stingray etc.

    I think the informant claims are true and that’s why they want the brother (and Todashev) safely dead. If the brothers were working with an undercover FBI guy egging them on and jumped the gun before they could be caught at the last minute as planned, that whole terrorism fighting strategy would come into serious question across the political spectrum. And that would be seriously bad for budgets.

    • emptywheel says:

      Remember, the govt has HAD an informant, David Headley, carry out a much larger terrorist attack than this (albeit on India, not the US). It’s not like that hasn’t happened before. Add in claims about Awlaki’s informant role, and it’s quite common. (Plus, there’s reason to believe Manssor Arbabsiar had been a DEA informant in the past as well, before being busted for trying to kill the Saudi Ambassador.)

      I’m not saying the tech claims are necessarily separate from the informant status — they’re not. Indeed, I’ve written about how, if Tamerlan were an informant, it would explain why the stuff NSA had collected on him would not have triggered him being targeted in a sting.

      But I guarantee you the FBI used more tech than they revealed at trial. The question is how good it was and when they learned stuff from it (we also know they’re hiding the time when they talked to TMobile about the brothers’ phones, though that could be simply because they want to hide that they got the info from AT&T first, which is the most likely case).

      • Romancing the Loan says:

        If they created the manhunt to make a false trail for catching the brothers, then they’re indirectly responsible for the death of Sean Collier. Not to mention directly responsible for the lockdown.

        I just don’t see how, if that’s so, it’s worth having a trial to kill him. He’d never know the difference. Why not just take a guilty plea and shut him away forever?

        • emptywheel says:

          Agree that FBI would be complicit in Collier’s death (though remember that Collier has some interesting ties to the MMA gym, and therefore may not have been a random victim).

          I’m surprised they have gotten this far (though believe it’s still technical feasible they will settle on death before next week, after which things may get more interesting).

          But one way or another, if they knew Tam when they got the pictures, they would have just been creating a manhunt. Whether it’s to hide that he was their informant AND/OR that they confirmed that using military grade surveillance that everyone at the race had been subject to, the goal is still the same. Hiding what they knew when.

          • pdaly says:

            That Collier was involved in Mixed Martial Arts was news to me just now.
            Was it the Allston, MA “Wai Kru” gym on Brighton Avenue?
            Brighton Ave, of course, is the same short stretch of Route 20 on which “Danny” was car-jacked by one or both of the Tsarnaev brothers and the same short stretch of road a former fellow Boston Pizza Express co-worker Mustafa Ozseferoglu claimed to have greeted the Tsarnaev brothers sitting in their car at a traffic light.

            According to this website (looks like it was posted in April 2013 based on the time stamp of the subsequent commenters), Tamerlan was not a member of the Wai Kru gym but he was known to them:

            “Head trainer, Kru John Allan, who is currently in Thailand, sent this statement out when reached for comment via Facebook message:
            Wai Kru MMA would like to first take the time to say our hearts go out to the victims and their families of this horrible tragedy. Tamerlan Sarnayev was not now, or ever a member of the Wai Kru MMA facilities. He was a local golden gloves boxer who came into the gym to spar from time to time. Wai Kru has been working closely with the FBI & Homeland Joint Task Force all morning to provide them with any materials that might be useful to bring these people to justice for their heinous crimes.”
            Julie Goldsticker, head of public relations for US Boxing, confirmed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was registered as an amateur fighter at Summerville Boxing Gym in 2003, 2004, and 2008 and registered at South Boston Boxing Club from 2009-2010. However, when asked about any gyms he was currently registered, Ms. Goldsticker did not have any information that pertains to his current registration status and was unable to confirm or deny if he has updated his registration with any gym.
            It looks like a few pictures of this BOXER surfaced on the web with him wearing some Wai Kru apparel and the certain websites were quick to associate the school and the terrorist because of it.”

  2. emptywheel says:

    Adding, that the first public claim about Tam being an informant came as part of the process of litigating the death penalty–it originally came from a defense filing on mitigation. So having a trial has ALREADY made the possibility he was an informant more prominent.

  3. galljdaj says:

    Marcy, clearly you and a few others have made the govt very nervous, gunshy with the truth, and devious.

    Current attacks on my computer are clearly illegal and they are never before mentioned as ‘means’. A world without privacy is what exists!

  4. greengiant says:

    I think the pressure cooker counting contest is just part of the DOJ dust cloud, first the “leak” that Tam’s wife bought 5 cookers, then the 74 purchased in the NE, only 5 with cash, and then the production of cash transaction records for 3 pressure cookers. Not at all clear the apartment pressure cooker parts are disjoint from the 2 used in Boston and the 1 used in Watertown. So I am going with this “contest” was just misdirection from DOJ aimed not at the trial, but at anyone doing critical analysis.
    Can anyone put Stingray together with the rumored anti-terrorist training exercise at the Marathon?

  5. Rayne says:

    Or perhaps the holes point not to the FBI’s use of a particular intelligence tool like Stingray, but the FBI’s use of much-wider intelligence resources including those which all participating entities of the Boston Fusion Center knew violated First Amendment protected activities — and then failed to adequately protect the public on top of violating their rights. Ex: See ACLU’s 2012 report focusing on the monitoring of Occupy Boston.

    By “much-wider intelligence resources,” I include the possibility of covert ops, some compartmentalized, visible only by the form around them like a black hole.

    The holes begin to look like features, not bugs, more so when compared to other terrorist investigations where questions were not followed.

  6. wallace says:

    quote:”That is, in addition to the other real questions and possible explanations for the delay, I think it possible that the FBI had to create a manhunt so as to hide the tools that IDed the brothers far earlier than they let on.”unquote

    Speaking of the incredulous manhunt and the absurd police display of firing idiocy, here’s another questions to lay out on the narrative table:

  7. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    So, basically, the manhunt was a huge case of parallel construction?

    Carefully constructing as case so as to not disclose “classified” information is something that’s par for the course in espionage cases. Structuring an investigation to not disclose “classified” information is also the stuff of espionage.

    It’s not a great leap to see this happen in domestic terrorism.

    • emptywheel says:

      No. Especially not if 1) they were also hiding a giant fuck-up with an informant 2) they were hiding military-grade tech used to surveil the Marathon.

      But if that’s what happened, boy did they blow the aftermath, to the point of killing one cop and almost killing another.

      But that might explain why the local cops are asking the questions — bc even ignoring FBI not sharing the Russian tip in 2011, the local cops paid the most via this stunt, if that’s what it was.

      • Bay State Librul says:

        You are giving too much credit to the FBI. Orchestrating a manhunt for nefarious reasons.
        The city was on lock down.
        I might eat my words some day, but I think we have been watching too many movies.

        Maybe the movie they are planning will pull out all the stops.


      • Saul Tannenbaum says:

        Bad wording on my part as the result of trying to be too cute.

        I’m just not surprised that the guiding principal in the investigation/manhunt was the protection of sources and methods.

  8. JohnT says:

    Off topic

    Dunno anything about the Boston bombing, I just wanted to let you know I’m in the nascent stages of my own blog.

    I’ve posted on other people’s websites, which for one reason or another have gone away, and have a diary at FDL (which I’m having a terrible time logging into). So, I’m jumping in with my own. Click my name if you’re interested.

Comments are closed.