Boston attack betrays foreign intelligence sharing failures


Author: Zach Abels

Two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three and injuring more than 260. The two suspects are brothers, ethnic Chechens and had lived in the U.S. legally for almost ten years. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a firefight with police four days after the bombings. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is hospitalized with gunshot wounds. Hasty, reckless reporting left the already traumatized American public confused, misinformed and angry. Who did it? Why? Who can we blame? Who can we kill?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not fumble the Tsarnaev case; the Boston bombing is the product of reasonable constitutional restrictions on federal law enforcement and ineffective foreign intelligence sharing practices.

The purpose of this article is not to trace the entirety of the Tsarnaevs’ narrative. There are, however, three details that require attention before discussing this issue.

First, according to The Wall Street Journal, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that the brothers were self-trained and self-indoctrinated, and were striking back at the U.S. for killing Muslims.” Many commentators and observers seem to have selective amnesia when it comes to this detail.

Second, there is no reason to believe that the brothers acted on behalf of any armed group or terrorist network. The Caucus Emirate – the Dagestani branch of the jihadist network in the North Caucusus – issued a formal statement denying any connection to the Tsarnaev brothers.

Third, and most importantly, according to a Foreign Affairs article, Tamerlan was visited by U.S. law enforcement in 2011 “on a tip from an ‘unnamed’ foreign government” (Russia has since been identified by multiple sources, including The Washington Post). He then traveled to his ancestral home in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan in 2012. This information speaks more to Russian malpractice than it does to FBI negligence and requires further examination.

Contrary to the immense and largely unfounded public criticism of its handling of the Tsarnaev case, the FBI acted appropriately and according to its legal mandate. After 9/11, the adoption of the Patriot Act amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, lowering the standard from probable cause to reasonable suspicion and allowing for the sharing of intelligence with agents working on criminal prosecutions. Even with these relaxed standards, the FBI did not have the grounds to pursue a more comprehensive probe of the Tsarnaevs than it already had. According to David Gomez (formerly of the FBI’s counterterrorism division), the FBI conducted its inquiry into the Tsarnaevs in accordance with the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guidelines:

“That means that someone like Tamerlan Tsarnaev could espouse sympathy for militant Islam without fear of investigation by the FBI – as long as he didn’t cross the line into activity that constitutes a violation of federal criminal law or a threat to national security – because the Constitution protects his right to freedom of speech and religion.”

Here lies the problem. In order to meet the minimum burden of evidence for the FBI to further investigate, it would have needed actionable intelligence from the Russians. But when the FBI requested more information from its supposed intelligence partner, it received none.

The Boston bombing and the investigation into the Tsarnaev brothers indicate, above all else, systemic deficiencies within international intelligence sharing. The U.S. must reconcile these failings and develop policies to enhance its relationships with foreign intelligence services. This objective, however, is far from easy. The nature of a foreign intelligence outfit is inherently distrustful of other actors, even allies.

According to Scott Helfstein of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “It is nearly impossible for the United States, acting alone, to track the behavior of a two-person cell across continents and into remote territories.” Cultivating strong intelligence sharing programs could fill this critical counterterrorism void.

The United States Intelligence Community and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) have maintained an air of Cold War animosity. The collapse of the Soviet Union has eased diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia, but the senior members of both countries’ intelligence services are largely dominated by career cold warriors. The result is a juvenile, and in this case, counterproductive intelligence relationship between Washington and Moscow. According to Gomez, individuals familiar with the FBI investigation of the Tsarnaev brothers “said that Russian officials did not respond to the FBI’s requests for additional information and noted that such behavior is not unusual.”

Those familiar with the Russian security apparatus have been quick to point out that the FSB likely played a much more active role in surveilling the Tsarnaevs than it led the FBI to believe.

Gomez asserts that it was the FSB’s responsibility to furnish information about Tamerlan’s visit to Dagestan and claims, “It is hard to believe that the FSB […] would have allowed him to travel in the country unobserved and uninvestigated.” Any accusations of investigative impropriety directed towards the FBI should be promptly redirected towards the FSB.

And so the inevitable question emerges: How can the U.S. incentivize foreign partners to engage in honest, productive intelligence sharing? Well, quite frankly, there is no easy answer. The closest thing to an answer may lie in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but the U.S.-Jordanian security relationship is extremely complex.

U.S.-Jordanian counterterrorism cooperation is based on the following facets: The U.S. gives Jordan $660 million annually in economic and military aid; Washington and Amman have a common enemy in al-Qaeda; the U.S. helped Jordan build a sophisticated military training center and, in return, Jordan’s special operations forces help the U.S. train the Afghan National Security Force; and most importantly, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate provides the Central Intelligence Agency with nearly limitless access to Jordan’s technical and human intelligence resources. Jordan’s pivotal role in locating senior al-Qaeda commanders in Iraq epitomizes the efficacy of this mutually beneficial sharing of intelligence.

It is probably too soon to make any sweeping claims as to what lessons the United States should take away from the Boston tragedy. Given the available information and the inherently difficult challenge of protecting the homeland from enemies near and far, the U.S. must take note of its intelligence sharing successes and develop a model for foreign intelligence cooperation that is both effective and sustainable.

Zach Abels is a junior DWA major. He can be reached at Do you have an opinion on this issue? If so, keep the conversation going and comment on this article at or write a Letter to the Editor.

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