FBI to Boston: You knew about Tsarnaev from JTTF files

Yesterday, the Boston Chief of Police told the House Homeland Security Committee that the FBI and DHS never warned them about Tamerlan Tsarnaev or informed him of his six-month sojourn to Dagestan, where radical Islamist networks operate. When asked if that information would have been useful, Chief Davis responded affirmatively. The FBI responded by pointing out that Boston PD’s representatives actually did read the file on Tsarnaev:

The FBI’s statement, in full, emphases mine:

“Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTFs) members, including the state and local members, are responsible for maintaining awareness of possible threats to their respective jurisdictions. To manage and provide accessibility to the significant number of assessments conducted by the JTTF, each task force member has access to Guardian, a web-based counterterrorism incident management application that was launched in July 2004.

“In Guardian, threat and suspicious activity incidents are entered, assigned and managed in a paperless environment and allows terrorist threats and suspicious activities to be viewed instantaneously by all system users. The primary purpose of Guardian is to make immediately available threat and suspicious activity information to all system users and to provide all users with the capability to search all incidents for threat trend analysis.

“Further, all JTTF members are able to perform customized key word searches of Guardian to identify relevant Assessment activity. Boston JTTF members, including representatives from the Boston Police Department (BPD), were provided instruction on using Guardian, including suggestions on methods for proactively reviewing and establishing customized searches, which would allow them to be fully informed of all JTTF activity that may affect Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Guardian allows for the necessary accessibility and awareness that otherwise would be unfeasible given the number of Assessments that are conducted by the JTTF on a regular basis.

“Many state and local departments, including the BPD, have representatives who are full-time members of the JTTF, and specifically had representatives assigned to the JTTF squad that conducted the 2011 Assessment of deceased terrorism suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As set forth by law and policy, assessments may be carried out to detect, obtain information about, or prevent or protect against federal crimes or threats to the national security or to collect foreign intelligence when the information provided to the FBI does not rise to a level that would allow for the opening of a predicated investigation. By their very nature, and in accordance with U.S. Constitutional restrictions, JTTF members are limited in the types of investigative methods that can be utilized in an Assessment.

“In 2011 alone, the Boston JTTF conducted approximately 1,000 assessments, including the assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, which was documented in the Guardian database. The Tsarnaev assessment was thorough, comprehensive and fully compliant with law and policy.

“While sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) are composed of federal, state, local and tribal personnel and are based in more than 100 cities nationwide, including Boston. The JTTF is a collaborative environment that allows for the completely unrestricted flow of investigative information among task force members.

“Importantly, the purpose of sharing information freely is to create a force multiplier by enabling state, local and federal officials to participate in the intelligence cycle by gaining awareness of activity that may affect their respective jurisdictions and then providing any information from their own records that might assist in the further analysis and investigation of potential terrorists. Further, Fusion Centers, entities separate and apart from JTTFs, are designed to provide terrorism-related information to the JTTFs for possible investigative purposes. State and local law enforcement personnel, analysts and FBI personnel at Fusion Centers who have the appropriate security clearances are afforded the same unrestricted access as their FBI colleagues.”

So, if the JTTF database is correct, then Boston at least learned that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had attracted enough interest to warrant an investigation in 2011.  But did that assessment give Boston PD a real sense of the potential threat that Tsarnaev posed?  After all, the FBI didn’t find any reason to keep watching Tsarnaev, and closed the case.  If Boston PD read the file, what action would they have taken?

A source with knowledge of the fusion centers e-mailed me earlier about the issues that keep local PD from getting enough information to act against real threats:

The TIDE database exists on JWICS, the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System. This is an encrypted Internet that is rated to handle that TS/SCI (“high side”) information, but JWICS can’t be accessed outside of a SCIF (sensitive compartmented information – that’s the SCI in TS/SCI – facility). Only Feds can build SCIFs.

Now, the FBI have SCIFs, have access to high side information and systems, and actually BPD personnel who, being on the JTTF as task force officers, have access to those systems. However, a peculiarity of the FBI is that they tend to focus on their Secret-level system instead of the TS/SCI one, since most FBI-specific data resides on the Secret-level network.

So, we have these fusion center analysts at the BRIC and whatever homeland security analysts BPD has messing around on DHS’s Secret-level network (called HSDN) and basically finding out nothing you couldn’t find on the open Internet (not really, but close), and therefore spending the majority of their time doing open source research on “threats” like white supremacists, sovereign citizens and militia movement types (the reason all those horrible “homeland security” reports came out on “right wing extremists?” This is why. That’s the only type of thing fusion center or state and local homeland security analysts could focus on with their level of access and their level of security clearances), while you have more threats active in a specific area like the Boston metro area than a typical FBI office can keep tabs on, and because of those poorly written reports and a fear of state and local LE types misusing TS/SCI-level data (which isn’t entirely unfounded), a large reserve of analytical manpower isn’t being utilized in tracking present and emerging threats in a given area.

This is the mess that is America’s current homeland security system. DHS should be building SCIFs, training analysts and clearing them TS/SCI, and in general helping to facilitate a nationwide, distributed intelligence network that’s perfectly geared to help combat a networked opponent. Instead, they feed state and locals watered-down intelligence assessments, and generic warnings, and essentially refuse to treat their state and local counterparts as equals.

And the counterparts? The state and locals? They refuse to recognize the intelligence ghetto they’ve allowed themselves to be put into, and continually exhibit a law enforcement mindset when they need to be worrying about emerging strategic threats. Oh, and the FBI? They don’t talk to anyone, don’t share with anyone, and consider closing a case as being the end of a threat. “We closed the case, we didn’t have any reason to keep investigating.” That’s the excuse I heard for Tsarnaev. Maybe that’s true, but if so, it’s a systemic failure and could be addressed by giving access to people who do not have a criminal case open on the guy, and will only be looking at a subject as an intelligence subject, and thus will have no contact with him, no role in any court case, and no requirement to cease interest in a subject based off of your criminal procedures.

In other words, we’re building new stovepipes in a system that was supposed to eliminate existing ones. Even if Boston PD had Tsarnaev’s name in 2011, what information about Tsarnaev did they get, and how useful was it in threat assessment?

Congress needs to rethink the entire DHS strategy from the beginning.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022
David Strom 1:31 PM on October 04, 2022