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Missing the Ping

So much for the surveillance state.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Within weeks of hearing from the FBI, the Russians redirected their letter about Tsarnaev to the CIA. “It was basically a duplicate of what they gave the FBI,” says one source familiar with the investigation. The CIA requested that Tsarnaev be placed in the TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) database, which would, in theory, help U.S. counterterrorism officials monitor his travel in and out of the country.

It didn’t. Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, told Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, that the bureau did not receive any notification when Tsarnaev departed for Russia or returned to the United States.

Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, appeared to contradict that claim when she testified, “The system pinged when he was leaving the United States. By the time he returned, all investigations had been closed.”

So what happens when “the system” pings to alert counterterrorism officials that someone on U.S. watchlists is on the move? None of the dozen U.S. officials who spoke to The Weekly Standard could say with any certainty, but it appears that the FBI was not included in the alert. “It wasn’t a territorial dispute—‘this is my territory, this is your territory,’ ” says Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But it clearly was a hiccup in the system.”

“Folks like me thought that if there was a ping like this, it went to everybody,” says Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It didn’t happen, and we don’t know all the details yet. But that’s a real red flag.”

Chambliss was operating on a reasonable assumption. The Russians had provided the FBI with a warning that Tsarnaev was a potential threat who wanted to return to Russia to connect with radical Islamist groups there. What’s the point of adding a suspected jihadist to the various watchlists kept by the U.S. government if the agencies that have investigated him are not alerted when he does what the government was warned he might do?

“After 9/11, we thought we were creating a seamless path to breaking down stovepipes between agencies,” says Chambliss. “The NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]was established to make sure information was shared. That obviously didn’t happen here.”

Investigators are looking at the possible involvement of others—both at home and overseas. Authorities tell The Weekly Standard that Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, notified him that he had been seen in the photographs and videos the FBI released on April 18. Russell delivered that warning to her husband without “any notion of surprise—just a report that ‘you’re being watched,’ ” according to one official briefed on the investigation. Those details came from the pre-Miranda interviews of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was cooperating with FBI interrogators before the questioning was abruptly stopped by a federal magistrate, who read the younger Tsarnaev his rights.

But it is Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Dagestan that has become a major focus of the investigation into the bombing. U.S. investigators in Dagestan are interviewing friends and relatives of Tsarnaev, trying to determine what contacts—if any—he had with jihadists in the region. Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, says that his son stayed at his home in Dagestan throughout the entire trip. There are reasons to be skeptical. Among the videos Tsarnaev uploaded to a YouTube channel that officials believe he operated were some featuring Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, a Dagestani jihadist leader who was killed in a gun battle with Russian security forces in December 2012. The two men were in Dagestan at the same time, though it’s not yet clear if they met. As of this writing, the investigation has turned up a number of interesting leads but no concrete evidence that Tamerlan received training or guidance from the jihadists in the North Caucasus. The FBI told Coats that the bureau intended to reconstruct Tsarnaev’s entire six-month trip to Dagestan.

Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the bombers’ lack of planning for after the attack suggests that the operation lacked the sophistication one might expect from someone with jihadist training. “You had one [brother] go back and start smoking dope, and while we don’t know exactly what Tamerlan did—these guys had no plan.”

But one intelligence official who participated in the briefings for lawmakers on Capitol Hill reached the opposite conclusion. “It’s almost impossible to believe that these two guys pulled this whole thing off.”

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