Feature

Could the CIA have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings?

The CIA, like the FBI, was warned about suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Earlier this week, the FBI came under scrutiny after it was discovered that Russia had warned the agency about suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. It now turns out that the CIA knew about Tsarnaev as well.

According to The Washington Post, Russia's security agency, the FSB, handed over information on Tsarnaev to CIA officials in Moscow in September 2011. The next month, Tsarnaev's information was passed to the National Counterterrorism Center, which maintains a federal database of potential terrorists known as TIDE, or Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment.

When Tsarnaev returned to the United States from Russia in July 2012, the FBI's investigation of him was already closed, meaning the agency had no reason to flag him. The CIA's involvement, however, raises the possibility that U.S. intelligence agencies should have flagged him. It also renews questions about interdepartmental cooperation that were supposed to have been addressed by the formation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, points out The Washington Post's editorial board:

Was there a breakdown in "critical information-sharing," as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) put it, that prevented the FBI and other agencies from learning about Tamerlan's travel to Russia? And did the bureau know about the CIA's communications with Russia? [The Washington Post]

While details are still emerging about the Tsarnaev case, it's starting to look like federal intelligence and national security agencies continue to have major communication problems.

"That's one of the key things that we have learned and need to work on to make sure it doesn't happen again, and that is simultaneous communication to all the relevant agencies when a warning is posted," Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) told Reuters.

According to The Boston Globe, in January, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which ranks the efficiency of federal programs, reported that information sharing was a "high risk" problem for the United States — the worst ranking the GAO has.

"We're still trying to figure out what we knew that either did or didn't get shared in the right way and if we had a breakdown in our systems, where was it, so we can fix it?" said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "Frankly, I don't know if there's anything we've seen that might have prevented the incident from happening. But that question has not fully been answered either."

In the next few months, congressional committees will investigate whether there was a serious breakdown in communication between agencies. What is clear is that information-sharing between the CIA, FBI, and DHS isn't at the level U.S. lawmakers envisioned after September 11. 

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