“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there's a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions,” said President Obama, in the late evening of April 19, after Dzokhar Tsarnaev was captured alive in Watertown, Mass. “But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it's important that we do this right. That's why we have investigations. That's why we relentlessly gather the facts. That's why we have courts. And that's why we take care not to rush to judgment -- not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people.”
Fair words of caution. We might all do well, after a week like this one, to take a deep breath and reconsider what we think we know with clear eyes and an open mind.
But it’s equally important not to avoid conclusions about the motivations of these individuals because such conclusions are discomfiting. And it’s especially important not to explain away facts because they contradict assumptions about the threats we face.
There are reasons to be concerned this is already happening.
In an exceptionally well-reported story in the Daily Beast Friday, we read this:
"One U.S. intelligence official who was regularly briefed on the investigation told Newsweek that he and his colleagues all but ruled out al Qaeda central or one of its affiliates giving direct and specific instructions for the attack."
Those comments were published less than a full day after the authorities first revealed the pixilated photos of the two attackers taken on marathon day, just hours after the public first learned their names and well before Dzokhar Tsarnaev was captured alive.
And yet, according to U.S. officials who spoke to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, the comments reflected the general view of those Obama officials involved in the investigation.
This is not, of course, the first time we’ve seen an apparent eagerness from the Obama administration to minimize or dismiss the possibility of broader ties to international terrorism after attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. interests. Three days after the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day 2009, President Obama suggested that the attempted attack was the work of “an isolated extremist.” He made the claim despite the fact that the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, told interrogators in interviews shortly after his capture that he’d worked with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Five months later, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the attempted bombing of Times Square by Faisal Shahzad a “one off” attack. Other administration officials downplayed the likelihood of ties to foreign jihadists. But several days later, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the Pakistani Taliban “helped facilitate” the attack. “We know that they probably helped finance it and that he was working at their direction.”
Perhaps most famously, the Obama administration downplayed involvement of al Qaeda affiliated terrorists in the attacks in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Despite ample evidence of their involvement – including real-time reporting from U.S. officials on the ground in Benghazi, a memo September 12 from the CIA station chief in Tripoli with details of the attacks and who conducted them, and communications intercepts from those involved in the assault – administration officials for days (even weeks) suggested that the attacks came spontaneously in response to an anti-Islam video.
These initial assessments fit nicely with the administration’s broader narrative about the end of the War on Terror and the imminent demise of al Qaeda. They were also wrong.
Why, then, would U.S. intelligence officials be ruling out ties to jihadist groups – or ruling out anything, for that matter – so early?
It’s an especially important question given what we know about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. CBS News reported Friday that the FBI had previously interviewed the elder Tsarnaev on a suspicion of ties to extremist groups. According to the CBS affiliate in Boston, the FBI initially denied ever contacting Tsarnaev. But later, after Tsarnaev’s mother spoke of the FBI contacts in an interview with Russian media, the FBI acknowledged that the older Tsarnaev had been under scrutiny.
In a statement released Friday, the FBI acknowledged having interviewed the elder Tsarnaev in 2011.
Once the FBI learned the identities of the two brothers today, the FBI reviewed its records and determined that in early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.
In response to this 2011 request, the FBI checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history. The FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011. The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government.
So, on the same day that a U.S. intelligence official said that the U.S. intelligence community had all but ruled out strong connections with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the FBI released a statement acknowledging that a foreign government had warned about Tsarnaev because of concerns that he might well have ties to “unspecified” radical Islamic groups.
There are two reasons to hope things have changed. First, the younger Tsarnaev was not read his Miranda rights immediately upon his capture and administration officials have made clear that they want to question him for intelligence as well as prosecutorial purposes. Second, in his remarks Friday night, the president promised that the U.S. government “will investigate any associations that these terrorists may have had.”
It’s a good start.