Media outlets and political pundits recently hinted that Russia hid details from the U.S. which might have prevented the 2013 Boston Marathon attack even as they can’t support such speculation. Furthermore, they failed to notice the significance of some of the intelligence the Russians shared with the U.S. regarding Tsarnaev.
“Russia Withheld Details on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Boston Bombing Suspect, Report Says” proclaimed the April 9 headline from the New York Times. Various blogs and commentators ran with this and questioned whether Russia bears some responsibility for the Boston Marathon attack because it didn’t provide all the intelligence it had on Tsarnaev. However, this is baseless conjecture. Russia is a geopolitical foe but in this case it gave the U.S. fair warning of the threat that Tsarnaev posed to the country.
In fact, the House Homeland Security Committee (HHSC) investigative report on the attack (which prompted the Times story and subsequent speculation) says that Russia warned the U.S. of Tsarnaev and his brother but the U.S. wasn’t able to find any connections to terrorism based on current U.S. law. The relevant passage from the HHSC report reads as follows:
(U) In response to this letter, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in Boston initiated an assessment to determine if Tamerlan Tsarnaev did indeed pose a terrorist threat. Such threat assessments are outlined in the Attorney General Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations, along with preliminary investigations and investigations. Each of these respective categories of investigative activity increases in scope, with assessments being the least intrusive.
So, U.S. law forced the FBI to conduct the least intrusive investigation into Tsarnaev based on the Russian intelligence. People can take what they want from this. They can believe that this aspect of U.S. law is too weak when compared to the threat terrorism poses to society or they can believe that the law is correct since it errs on the side of protecting the civil liberties of citizens; that society has to accept that it cannot stop all illegal acts. Either way, there is no evidence suggesting that Russia did anything devious.
But didn’t Russia refuse to provide additional intelligence to the FBI when it asked for it in 2011? Yes. But that isn’t that significant. It’s actually standard practice for nations that aren’t allies. Even nations that are allies select which intelligence they share with each other. Remember what’s going on in the news now? The U.S. isn’t (or wasn’t) sharing intelligence with Ukraine.
There’s simply no indication of Russia doing anything wrong with regards to the Boston Marathon attack. Both the HHSC report and individual congressman openly acknowledge this. The Associated Press reported the following:
Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said what the Russian government did or did not do is less critical to analyze than any missed opportunities by American law enforcement.
“The U.S. should not be reliant on Russia to provide domestic security,” he said. “We should not depend on Russia for the information to make the U.S. safe.”
Even the fact that the Russians provided additional intelligence on Tsarnaev to the FBI after the Boston attack doesn’t implicate the Russians in doing anything negligent or hostile before the attack . . . at least as it relates to the attack.
What I mean by that is this. The Associated Press article noted that the intelligence the Russians provided to the FBI after the 2013 attack revealed that they had been listening to Tsarnaev’s phone calls in 2011—which presumably means they were listening to his phone calls while he was living in the U.S. And the HHSC report revealed that Russians had gathered additional extensive intelligence on Tsarnaev:
. . . While lacking compelling derogatory information on exactly why he posed a threat, the letter contained detailed biographic information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, including physical addresses, marital status, online social media profiles, and discussed his history as a boxer. The letter also noted that he had previously hoped to travel to the Palestinian territories to wage jihad, but decided not to go because he did not speak Arabic. . . .
Has any media outlet or political pundit—on the left or right—bothered to ask how the Russians were able to gather such extensive intelligence on an American citizen while he was living in America? Everyone is obsessed with the disinformation concerning the NSA. So why aren’t people concerned with the fact that the Russians are spying on Americans?
The bottom line is that Russia poses a national security threat to the U.S. but there is no evidence to suggest that it bears any culpability in failing to warn the U.S. of the threat that Tamerlan Tsarnaev posed to it. At the same time, people might want to start doing a little bit more investigating into Russian intelligence practices and capabilities—particularly as they relate to intelligence gathering in America.
Paul Hair honorably served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a non-commissioned officer; he is veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has worked as a civilian in both the government and private sectors. His writings have appeared at various websites. Paul now runs The Security and Culture Intelligencer website (http://scintelligencer.blogspot.com/) and is an independent consultant for Wikistrat, a strategic analysis and forecasting network. Connect with him at the S&CI website and on Twitter at @PaulHair1.
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