“Why are we still having problems connecting the dots?” asked House Homeland Security chair Michael McCaul, and he asked one of the right people. In a hearing this morning, McCaul invited DHS co-creator and former Senator Joe Lieberman to analyze the issues of stovepiping that the 2002 consolidation was supposed to address, in the context of the Boston Marathon bombing. Lieberman responded in writing with a blunt assessment:
“To put it bluntly, our homeland defense system failed in Boston,” Lieberman said in a written “statement for the record” submitted to the committee. As a senator, Lieberman introduced legislation that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. …
In response to questions from McCaul, Davis said local authorities in Boston, including a joint anti-terrorism task force, were not aware of key developments in the radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev that had come to the attention of federal agencies, including a warning from Russian state security, Tsarnaev’s travel to Russia’s Dagestan region and his posting of radical Islamist videos on the Internet.
Davis said he would like to have known that information before the bombings but that he could not say for sure whether the knowledge would have enabled authorities to prevent the attack.
“I can’t say I would have come to a different conclusion” than federal investigators did after looking into Tsarnaev and shelving the inquiry. But Davis said local authorities would have talked to Tsarnaev and given him “a second look, absolutely,” if they had received the information.
“Why are we still having problems connecting the dots?” McCaul asked, citing the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the expenditure of billions of dollars to combat terrorism.
The fact that neither the FBI nor Homeland Security notified local members of the joint terrorism task force in Boston of suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev “is really a serious and aggravating omission,” Lieberman told the committee. Local law enforcement “could have stayed on this case” and picked up signals from students, members of Tsarnaev’s mosque and others “that could have prevented all this from happening,” Lieberman said.
Here’s the Massachusetts Undersecretary for Homeland Security telling McCaul that no one at DHS ever bothered to let them know about the Tsarnaevs, courtesy of CBS:
It might have helped if the FBI took the warnings from Russia about Tamerlan Tsarnaev more seriously. Both the FBI and CIA were notified by Russia at different times of the FSB’s concerns over his connection to radical Islamist extremism. Despite having come to the US as a refugee from political persecution, Tsarnaev returned to stay in Dagestan for six months — while leaving a wife and small child behind. None of this prompted the FBI or DHS to share that information with other law-enforcement agencies, despite the CIA’s move to add Tamerlan and his mother to the TIDE database.
The FBI is taking a closer look at those six months now, according to the New York Times:
But now, investigators are looking into a range of suspected contacts Mr. Tsarnaev might have made in Dagestan, from days he might have spent in a fundamentalist Salafi mosque in Makhachkala, the capital, to time spent outside the city with a relative who is a prominent Islamist leader recently taken into custody by Russian authorities.
The emerging details of his time here have not fundamentally altered a prevailing view among American and Russian investigators that he was radicalized before his visit. However, there have been reports that he sought out contact with Islamist extremists, and was flagged as a potential recruit for the region’s Islamic insurgency.
The local counterterrorism group in the Caucasus presumed that Tsarnaev had failed to make any connections during his stay. However, evidence points in the other direction:
Investigators in Russia are also looking into Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s interactions online, and exploring whether he and a Canadian-born militant, William Plotnikov, might have been part of a larger group of diaspora Russian speakers who mobilized online, under the auspices of an organization based in Europe, a law enforcement official said.
Unearthing what investigators have learned became more difficult two weeks ago when President Vladimir V. Putin told reporters that, “to our great regret,” Russian security services did not have operative information on the Tsarnaev brothers that they could have shared with American officials. The police in Dagestan have said Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not under surveillance.
Since then an official from the Anti-Extremism Center, a federal agency under Russia’s Interior Ministry, confirmed for The Associated Press that operatives had filmed Mr. Tsarnaev during visits to the Makhachkala mosque, whose worshipers adhere to a more radical strain of Islam, and scrambled to locate him when he disappeared from sight after Mr. Plotnikov was killed in a counterterrorism raid. An official from the same unit told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that Mr. Tsarnaev had been spotted repeatedly with a suspected militant, Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, who was killed shortly thereafter in a counterterrorism raid.
If we’re missing the connections between those dots, what other dots remain unconnected on other potential threats? What other communication barriers exist that will end up stovepiping critical information that will only come out in the aftermath of an attack? If the formation of DHS didn’t solve those problems, perhaps we should rethink the approach of adding layers of bureaucracy onto the problem and look for ways to eliminate organizational barriers instead — which is what we should have done in the first place.