First, everyone wondered how Tamerlan Tsarnaev could have left the country without triggering an alarm after a Russian warning to the FBI in 2011 about his radicalization. Yesterday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said that Tsarnaev’s travel did set off warning bells, at least when he left. Last night, though, CNN reported that Tsarnaev had never been on a watch or no-fly list at all — which is why no one noticed when he left and returned:
Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not on a terrorism watch list or a “no-fly” list when he traveled to Russia last year, a federal law enforcement official told CNN on Tuesday.
The source, who spoke on condition of not being identified, noted the FBI found no suspicions of terrorist ties when it interviewed Tsarnaev and his family members and friends in 2011 after Russia asked U.S. authorities for information on the immigrant from the Caucasus region.
Because the United States “never deemed him a threat,” Tsarnaev “was not on a terror watch list or any ‘no-fly’ list,” according to the official.
The information added to questions over the FBI’s handling of Tsarnaev, 26, the older of two brothers accused of setting off two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others near the finish line of last week’s Boston Marathon.
Not long after, Reuters’ Mark Hosenball reported the exact opposite:
The name of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was listed on the U.S. government’s highly classified central database of people it views as potential terrorists. But the list is so vast that this did not mean authorities automatically kept close tabs on him, sources close to the bombing investigation said on Tuesday.
Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a police shootout early Friday, while his younger brother Dzhokhar, 19, was captured later that day. Prosecutors say the brothers, ethnic Chechens who had been living in the United States for more than a decade, planted two bombs that exploded near the finish line of the marathon on April 15, killing three people and wounding more than 200.
The sources said Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s details were entered into TIDE, a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, because the FBI spoke to him in 2011 while investigating a Russian tip-off that he had become a follower of radical Islamists.
The FBI found nothing to suggest he was an active threat, but all the same placed his name on the “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment” list. The FBI has not said what it did find about Tsarnaev.
How could DHS know that Tsarnaev was traveling without having him on a watch list? That’s one question that the FBI and DHS will have to hash out, but Sen. Lindsey Graham asked another yesterday. If Napolitano is right and DHS knew a person of interest was traveling to a region where radical Islamists operate, did they let the FBI know? It doesn’t look that way, Graham told CNN:
However, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN on Tuesday that the episode showed that the Department of Homeland Security never notified the FBI that Tsarnaev had left the country.
“It was clear to me that the homeland security shop had information about the travel to Russia, the FBI did not, and they’re not talking to each other and they’re going back to the pre-9/11 problems here,” Graham said.
Another good question should be whether the TIDE database is useful for real-time national-security work. If it has gotten so large that it’s not able to keep the FBI informed on movements or allow investigators to keep tabs on its members, then perhaps the FBI needs more resources, or the list needs to get narrowed a bit. When you can’t watch the watch list effectively, how much preventive good can it do?
Whether or not Tamerlan was on the terror or watch lists, Tamerlan was at least on one government list — welfare. This seems to be the topic du jour:
Marathon bombings mastermind Tamerlan Tsarnaev was living on taxpayer-funded state welfare benefits even as he was delving deep into the world of radical anti-American Islamism, the Herald has learned.
State officials confirmed last night that Tsarnaev, slain in a raging gun battle with police last Friday, was receiving benefits along with his wife, Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, and their 3-year-old daughter. The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services said those benefits ended in 2012 when the couple stopped meeting income eligibility limits. Russell Tsarnaev’s attorney has claimed Katherine — who had converted to Islam — was working up to 80 hours a week as a home health aide while Tsarnaev stayed at home.
In addition, both of Tsarnaev’s parents received benefits, and accused brother bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan were recipients through their parents when they were younger, according to the state.
The news raises questions over whether Tsarnaev financed his radicalization on taxpayer money.
Does it? It’s certainly a great opportunity to call Tsarnaev a hypocrite, taking money from the government he apparently hated (the Herald front page headline: “WHAT NERVE”), but otherwise, what’s the argument? Tsarnaev was a legal resident and apparently qualified for welfare; other welfare recipients also end up committing burglaries, robberies, and murder, as do non-recipients. This is one of those aha! moments that end up being about nothing much at all.
Update: Gabriel Malor e-mails me with a couple of good points. To summarize, there are actually a couple of kinds of watch lists, and it also may be that Tsarnaev’s listing expired from one of those lists while he was out of the country (the LA Times suggested as much yesterday). If so, that’s a strange thing to happen while someone is traveling on a visa outside of the country — to the country that warned us about him in the first place.
Update: The Tsarnaevs got dropped from the welfare rolls last year, when the wife started earning too much money to qualify:
The suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings killed in a shootout with police received welfare benefits from the state up until last year, when he became ineligible based on family income. …
The state says both Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (joh-KHAHR’ tsahr-NEYE’-ehv) — his brother and the other bombing suspect — received welfare benefits as children through their parents while the family lived in Massachusetts.
Neither was receiving benefits at the time of the bombing.