The news coming out of Boston that will have the greatest ramifications for American politics in the near-to-medium term is the revelation that the FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the behest of the Russian government in 2011. (Originally, reports did not mention a specific country, even though anyone who can add 2 and 2 could figure it out: who did they think they were fooling?) Add this to the fact that Tamerlan spent about 6 months in Russian-including time in Dagestan, which is currently the most restive and violent part of the Russian Caucasus-and one question comes to mind: What did the FBI miss?
On the fringes, the answer would be: “Nothing. They knew all along and wanted it to happen. Hell, they made it happen.” Claims of a “false flag” attack began almost from the moment of the bombing. The Tsarnaevs’ parents’ statements can only feed these suspicions:
“My son would never do this,” Tsarnaeva said. “He was controlled by the FBI for three to five years, they knew what my son was doing, they knew what actions, on what sites on the Internet he was going,” she said. “So how could this happen? They were controlling every step of his.”
. . . .
Tsarnaeva, whose younger son Dzhokar, 19, was captured after an almost 24-hour manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding cities, said she had been interviewed by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents about Tamerlan, who had described him as an “extremist leader.”
The brothers’ father, Anzor, also denied his sons’ involvement in the Boston attacks in an interview with Russian state channel Rossiya 24 in Makhachkala, saying they couldn’t “hurt a fly.”
Anzor, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, said he was present when the FBI interviewed Tamerlan in Cambridge. He said they visited for what they called “prevention” activities. “They said: We know what sites you are on, we know where you are calling, we know everything about you. Everything,” he said as cited in the interview.
From such seeds will grow a New Trutherism. (Ironically, it appears that Tamerlan was a 911 Truther.)
From the non-fringe, the FBI’s failure to identify Tamerlan as a risk will spark accusations of political motives and political correctness (“the Obama administration is soft on Islamist terror”) from the right. Those who use “never attribute to malice which can be explained by incompetence” as an operating principle will argue that the FBI (and American law enforcement generally) works off an outdated and flawed model of the modern terrorist threat: that it is fighting the last war.
There is something in the linked Bloomberg article that supports this view:
U.S. intelligence agencies reviewing international communications and other terrorism intelligence found no signs that the suspected bombers were members of, or inspired by, any foreign terror group, said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because those matters are classified.
In other words, the focus of the investigation was on connections to foreign terrorist organizations. But what about self-starting, volunteerist terrorists motivated by Islamist rhetoric, propaganda and preaching? It’s not like this risk was unknown in 2011, or in 2012 when Tamerlan went to Dagestan. Major Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, is a classic example. The (failed) Times Square bomber is another.
I will warrant that it is far more difficult to assess this risk: connection with a terrorist group is a far more telling indication of intent and capability to commit terrorist acts than is reading or echoing Islamist materials. But apparently the latter was enough to make the FBI concerned and get Tamerlan on its radar: evidently, though, only taking the next step and affiliating with a terrorist group would have kept him there, or put him into custody. Taking actions against such individuals is also much dicier, from a civil liberties perspective.
But such individuals are arguably now the greatest terrorist threat in the US proper. Thus, I expect that the FBI will undergo considerable scrutiny as to how it has evolved to address the home-grown, self-starting terrorist risk, especially post-Fort Hood/Times Square.
And the FBI is inherently a politicized organization, and has been for decades. Its failures inherently lead to questions about the responsibility of the Attorney General and the President for them. In some respect these questions are legitimate, but they will also feed partisan attacks.
So look forward to months of highly charged debate over the FBI’s failure to identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a terror risk despite been warned about him, leavened with fringe-but very loud-claims that it directed him as part of a dark conspiracy against the Republic. Every revelation about Tamerlan’s travels, his Islamist reading or statements will only add fuel to the fire: “Why didn’t the FBI connect these dots?” The self-preservation instincts of politicians and bureaucracies ensures that there will be a war of leaks between the FBI and the administration-these too will fuel the controversy. I wouldn’t be surprised if this also reanimates the moribund interest in Benghazi. I also wonder what kind of information the Russians will announce, leak, or make up in an attempt to use the episode to advance their interests.
Heretofore, Obama has been largely immune from blame for terror attacks-Major Hasan and Benghazi being primary examples. Boston hits much closer to home, however, and the FBI’s longstanding knowledge of the perpetrator means this situation poses a far greater risk for him. And like I said in an earlier post, knowledge of this might have fed Obama’s rage at the Rose Garden temper tantrum on Wednesday.