WASHINGTON — The CIA pushed to have one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers placed on a U.S. counterterrorism watch list more than a year before the attack, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Russian authorities contacted the CIA in fall 2011 and raised concerns that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed last week in a confrontation with police, was seen as an increasingly radical Islamist who could be planning to travel overseas.
The CIA request led the National Counterterrorism Center to add Tsarnaev’s name to a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which is used to feed information to other lists, including the FBI’s main terrorist-screening database.
The CIA’s request came months after the FBI had closed a preliminary inquiry into Tsarnaev after getting a similar warning from Russian state security, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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The disclosure of the CIA’s involvement suggests the U.S. government may have had more reason than it has previously acknowledged to scrutinize Tsarnaev in the months leading up to the bombings in Boston.
It also raises questions about why U.S. authorities didn’t flag his return to the United States and investigate him further after his six-month trip to Russia in 2012.
The CIA declined to comment on its role. A U.S. intelligence official said the agency had “nominated [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] for inclusion in the watchlisting system” and had shared all of the information it had been given by Russia, including “two possible dates of birth, his name and a possible variant.”
The official said the information Russia provided to the CIA was “nearly identical” to what it had shared with the FBI.
U.S. officials said the warning to the CIA came from Russia’s FSB, a successor to the KGB, and that it was based on fears that Tsarnaev was an Islamist militant who might seek to carry out a terrorist attack in Russia.
Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, immigrated to the United States about a decade ago, but their family had ties to Chechnya, a region where Muslim separatists have been engaged in a bloody conflict with the central Russian government for decades.
The younger Tsarnaev, who is recovering from gunshot injuries in a Boston hospital, was apprehended days after the bombings and faces terrorism-related charges.
Federal prosecutors have charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with use of a weapon of mass destruction and destruction of private property with an explosive for the April 15 bombings in which three people died and more than 260 were injured. Both federal charges carry the potential for the death penalty or for life in prison.
Officials reported Wednesday he remains in fair condition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he’s being treated for multiple wounds.
The news of the watch-list request came on a day of multiple developments in the case, including:
• Authorities, who previously said Dzhokhar exchanged gunfire with them for more than an hour Friday night before they captured him inside a boat, said he was unarmed when captured, raising questions about the gunfire and how he was injured.
• The twin bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon were likely detonated with long-range remote controls of the kind found in children’s toys, according to a bulletin sent to police agencies by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
• Two U.S. officials say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev acknowledged his role in the attacks to FBI investigators before authorities advised him of his constitutional rights, including the right to consult with an attorney and not to incriminate himself.
It was not clear whether the admission would be admissible in a criminal trial, since it came before he was read his Miranda rights. It’s also unclear whether prosecutors would need it to secure a conviction since physical evidence has already been uncovered in the investigation.
• More than 10,000 people, many of them uniformed police or military officers, gathered Wednesday on a tightly secured athletic field at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to remember Sean A. Collier, the campus police officer who authorities say was gunned down by the two brothers.
• Authorities recovered a 9-mm handgun believed to have been used by Tamerlan Tsarnaev from the site of the Thursday night gunbattle that injured a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officer, two U.S. officials said.
• The suspects’ parents, Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, plan to fly to the U.S. from Russia on Thursday, the father was quoted as telling the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. The family has said it wants to take Tamerlan’s body back to Russia.
As for the watch list, the FSB appears to have given information a bout Tamerlan Tsarnaev, including possible birth dates and the spelling of his name in Cyrillic letters, to CIA officials in Moscow in late September 2011.
The information was passed to CIA headquarters Oct. 4 and relayed roughly two weeks later to the National Counterterrorism Center, an agency that serves as a clearinghouse for threat data and manages the TIDE database.
The Reuters news agency first disclosed that Tsarnaev’s name was listed in the TIDE database. But the revelation of the CIA’s role is likely to intensify questions over whether the FBI and other domestic law-enforcement agencies missed chances to detect or disrupt the bomb plot.
The older Tsarnaev traveled to Russia on Jan. 12, 2012, less than three months after his name had been placed on the TIDE list. In congressional testimony Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said U.S. authorities had flagged Tsarnaev’s departure, but not his return.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Napolitano said at a Senate hearing. “By the time he returned, all investigations had been closed.”
Napolitano was referring to the FBI’s decision in July 2011 to close its inquiry into Tsarnaev after concluding he was not a threat. U.S. officials have said that FBI decision meant his name might have come off the database employed by U.S. Customs agents a year later, just days before his re-entry into the United States.
But the CIA’s subsequent involvement in the case complicates that chronology, raising the possibility that Tsarnaev was still on the TIDE list when he returned. If Customs officials had alerted the FBI to his return, the bureau might have found reason to question him further in the months leading up to the attacks.
Instead, the FBI was not notified of his return, and it is not even clear the bureau was aware Tsarnaev’s name had been added to the TIDE database at the behest of the CIA.
The sequence has raised concerns among senior lawmakers that significant gaps remain in the elaborate screening systems that were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“I’m very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Tuesday after emerging from a closed-door briefing on the bombing by senior officials from the FBI and other agencies.
“That is troubling to me that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001 that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively.”
U.S. officials acknowledged the Boston attack has prompted the FBI and other agencies to evaluate whether their information-sharing procedures and systems should be revised again. But they stressed it’s not clear that doing so would have averted the outcome in Boston.
The elder Tsarnaev “did not come anywhere close to being a selectee” for the U.S. no-fly list, a U.S. intelligence official said. Asked what might have changed if his return had been called to the FBI’s attention, the official said, “Probably nothing.”
FBI officials defended the bureau’s handling of the case, which began with a request from Russian federal police in Moscow.
“There was a concern he might have some kind of ties to terrorism,” said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. “We did everything legally that we could do with the little bit of information we had. After we did, we found no derogatory information.”
Meanwhile, Collier, 27, the slain MIT officer, was remembered at an outdoor campus memorial as a curious and charismatic officer who had wanted to be a policeman since he was 7 years old.
He took an active role in campus life, said MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, asking students about their studies and joining the outdoors club, whose conditioning workouts — climbing 21 flights of stairs — he performed in full uniform.
“In just 15 months, he built a life with us that was rich in friendship and shared adventure,” Reif said. “And he touched people across our community with his deep kindness and openhearted willingness to help, his humor and enthusiasm, his playful charm.”
Musician James Taylor sang “The Water is Wide” and led a singalong of “Shower the People” at the service, at which Vice President Joe Biden also spoke. Biden drew on his experience of losing a child, and reflected on what had motivated the bombers to commit their terrorism.
“Why, whether it’s al-Qaida,” asked Biden, “or two twisted, perverted, cowardly knockoff jihadis here in Boston, why do they do what they do?”
“They do it to instill fear,” Biden said. He later said, “We have suffered, we are grieving, but we are not bending.”
Addressing the students present, Biden cited the diversity of MIT and its intellectual firepower.“You are their worst nightmare,” Biden said. “All the things these perverted jihadis — self-made or organized — all the things they fear.”
Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times is included in this report.