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The Boston Case Reviewed: What We Know and What We Don’t

The following review of the Boston marathon bombings case will mostly draw on a series of MyFDL posts on the subject that I authored between April 22 and May 16 and their associated comments threads and on Russ Baker’s May 14 summary of the case preliminary to his own investigation, while also noting the insights of other commentators. At first the treatment will be chronological and then I will note some overall patterns.

To summarize in advance, the most important thing that we know about the matter is that the government’s narrative of events is not credible, so that one or more truths are being hidden. The most important thing that we don’t know is who actually carried out the acts and (especially) why.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the pre-history
According to the government’s narrative the story begins with a report that the FBI investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev for possible subversive activity at the request of the Russian government, interviewing him in January, 2011. It found no reason to pursue the matter.

I have not seen explained precisely what the Russians said had raised their suspicions of Tsarnaev in early 2011 and why the FBI would think this relevant to the US. If we go by what troubled Russia about him over a year later, after he had visited there for a time, the issue was his contact with separatist groups in the country’s North Caucasus region. If so, the FBI could certainly claim that he posed no threat here.

But maybe the FBI is leaving something out. The Tsarnaev family has at least an indirect connection with the CIA, in the person of Tamerlan’s uncle Ruslan Tsarni (as he is now named). It is not only the frequently cited fact that Tsarni was married for a time in the 1990s to the daughter of a key CIA Middle East person, Graham Fuller, although that is indicative. He probably met that family because he was a consultant for USAID, which has been little more than a CIA front throughout its history, in Kazakhstan during the 1990s. (One of the numerous articles that have appeared that ridicule “conspiracy theories” of the bombings makes much of the point that the just cited piece perhaps unduly speculates about other possible connections of Tsarni, but does not refute this central contention.) Ruslan has behaved in a peculiar manner during this affair as will be discussed below. If the FBI is not telling us that it checked with the CIA and was informed that Tamerlan was an asset, that would explain why it dropped his case in 2011.

We have also heard that Tamerlan spent six months in Russia in 2012 and was monitored while there. Russia subsequently revealed to the US at various times that he met with militant North Caucasus separatists and that he and his mother (who lives there) discussed “jihad” on the telephone. The first point shows that he was anti-Russia, not that he was anti-US, and while much was made in US media of the “jihad” citation, most Muslims use that term in the standard sense provided by the Qur’an of “struggle in the way of God,” not as a synonym for holy war. Thus there is really nothing in these reports to suggest an anti-US hatred of the al-Qaeda type. They would be consistent with a theory of him as a CIA asset.

Still, one detail about Tamerlan Tsarnaev gives pause. On two occasions, in November, 2012 and in January, 2013, respectively, he interrupted services at a Cambridge, Mass. mosque, nominally to express quasi-Salafist views of Islam, but in a disruptive manner, suggesting an unstable personality. This does not square well with a notion of him either as a CIA asset or as a cold-blooded terrorist, since in either case he would want to be unobtrusive in his daily affairs.

Another point that has recently resurfaced is that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a friend of Brendan Mess, who was murdered in Waltham, Mass in September, 2011, along with two other people, with their throats slit and marijuana strewn over their bodies. One would think that this had to do with drug trafficking, but Boston bombing investigators took that event as occasion to review the earlier one by “a wider group of eyes,” according to one news report. Subsequently, anonymous “law enforcement officials” (whether federal or local is not stated) claimed that “forensic evidence” places both Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar at the crime scene and that cell phone records place them in the general area on the day of the murders. But all this is vague enough (if the Tsarnaevs had visited their acquaintance their DNA would probably be found in his apartment) to say that it proves nothing.

The bombings on April 15
Virtually the only actual document citing the government’s narrative of this case, as opposed to a whirl of news reports attributed to anonymous “officials familiar with the investigation,” is the formal criminal complaint against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, filed by FBI Special Agent Daniel Genck on April 21. It states in particular, first, that video footage shows “Bomber One” (later to be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev) walking in the direction of the location of the first explosion approximately seven minutes before it occurred. The complaint says no more about him at the bombings scene.

Second, Genck goes into rather more detail on the movements of “Bomber Two” (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) as recorded in videos, to the point of describing when he has a cell phone to his ear and when not. The crucial points are that he places his backpack at his feet, appears calm when the first explosion happens, unlike other persons in the area, and “calmly but rapidly” walks away for ten seconds, whereupon an explosion occurs where he had been.

Apart from the point that I don’t know how one can judge an emotion like calmness from the typical surveillance camera, ten seconds walking through a crowd seems a rather short time to give yourself to get away from an explosion if you know one is going to happen (h/t Margo Schulter).

Now, the Tsarnaevs were not the only persons of interest at the event. According to one runner in the competition, the starting line featured a bomb squad with bomb-sniffing dogs, about which participants were told not to be alarmed as it was only a training exercise, and he says that in his considerable experience with such races he never saw this before.

And then there is the presence of the Blackwater-style “security” company Craft International. Several of its operatives were observed near the race’s finish line, which is to say in the general area where the explosions occurred, and no one wants to talk about them. The journalist Dave Lindorff spent a lot of time calling race organizers and various officials, but could not even get an answer as to who hired the company, let alone its purpose at the event.

A striking point here is that in a subsequently released photo of an exploded backpack, considered to have belonged to Tamerlan, a white square is seen on the cloth that is similar to the markings on the backpacks carried by the Craft people, whereas there is no such marking on Tamerlan’s backpack as seen on surveillance camera footage (see the photo on pg. 4 of Lindorff’s article).

It has since been revealed that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center released a report one week before the event which identified the finish line area where the bombings would indeed occur as “an area of increased vulnerability” to “small-scale bombings.” This raises the obvious question of why, then, were the bombings not prevented. (After all, BRIC has certainly shown itself to be able to monitor peaceful groups like Occupy to the point of excess.) It also raises a more subtle question: Who was on the distribution list of this report and would learn from it that the finish line presented opportunities?

The events of May 18 to early May 19
The criminal complaint alleges that near midnight on April 18, after images of the Tsarnaev brothers as suspects had been disseminated, a man carjacked a vehicle in Cambridge and, after telling the victim that he was responsible for the bombing, picked up a second man. The victim said they spoke to each other in a foreign language. The complaint further alleges that the same vehicle was later located by police in Watertown, whereupon a gun battle ensued. One man was captured but died from his injuries while the second escaped. The first man was identified via fingerprints as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the second via security camera at a location the carjacking victim said they visited as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

One observes that the criminal complaint does not charge kidnapping as a result of the carjacking and subsequent alleged robbery of its victim of cash and ATM password, although kidnapping is a federal crime (h/t stratocruiser). The complaint says the carjackers spoke in a foreign language, but the alleged victim, a Chinese entrepreneur who has been called “Danny” during this case, later told the Boston Globe that they conversed about “girls, credit limits for students, the marvels of the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 and the iPhone­ 5, whether anyone still listens to CDs.” Does Danny speak Russian? And the Globe piece also says he could identify no one in a “drive-by lineup.” Here and in the criminal complaint it is stated that he escaped from his captors, but it was originally said that they let him go.

The criminal complaint speaks of the brothers driving to the place where the shoot-out with the police occurred in a single car, the stolen one. However, a series of still photographs taken by Andrew Kitzenberg from a window overlooking the street where it happened shows two cars being used by the people the police were shooting at.

On the other hand, the criminal complaint asserts that the brothers threw a number of IEDs during the encounter, whereas Kitzenberg claims that one of his photos (the first one with a red circle) shows such a device exploding. (I can’t make out enough detail to confirm this but have no reason to doubt it.) Kitzenberg’s comments claiming that the two persons are the Tsarnaev brothers of course constitute editorializing on his part, since the resolution of the photos is certainly insufficient to identify them.

The criminal complaint says “one of the men was severely injured [by the shoot-out] and remained at the scene,” and later says he was pronounced dead at a hospital. He was identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. However, a video taken by a CNN camera man and commented on by a CNN reporter shows a naked man who looks like Tamerlan, but who appears uninjured, being arrested. The video has since been deleted from the CNN website but not before being downloaded many times. Here is the original version with its comments thread, and here is a version with a portion enlarged to show the man’s marked resemblance to Tsarnaev. This video has been dismissed as a record of the mistaken arrest of a different person, in particular in a New Yorker article that pooh-poohs “conspiracy theories” of the bombings, but even the author of that article admits that he was unable to learn who the supposedly other person was.

The lockdown and the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Residents of the greater Boston area will not soon forget May 19, 2013, when the region essentially shut down simply to catch “a 19-year old kid,” as Ohio Barbarian put it in a timely FDL post. That the authorities’ action was sheer folly when judged by its ostensible purpose was amply demonstrated there and in other progressive sources at that time, such as naked capitalism’s open thread for Boston residents, and even here and there in the mainstream media. Among other points, it was a green light to copycats showing how easy it was to shut down a major city.

In such a context one can hardly help speculating that the actual purpose of the lockdown must have been something else, such as the Department of Homeland Security seizing the opportunity to test the waters for eventual martial law. I myself am inclined to think that it was a desperate attempt to prevent anyone from encountering Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and hearing his side of things before the government could get him under its control. But of course one can’t prove anything about it.

As is well known, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found lying in a boat by its owner after the lockdown had been lifted. Police were called, and it was initially stated that they engaged in an extended gun battle with him before he finally surrendered; only later was it admitted that he was unarmed. One can only wonder if the admission was made because when he arrived at a hospital a bit later everyone would have realized that he was too seriously wounded to be able to use a gun for any length of time.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the hospital
As far as I know there is no record of anyone besides FBI personnel speaking publicly about Tsarnaev from the time he was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on Friday night, April 19 until court personnel conducted a hearing in his hospital room on Monday, April 22. Even changes his medical condition were announced by the FBI, not by doctors or other hospital representatives. That is to say, he was held incommunicado. Moreover, according to one Congressman involved in hearings on the matter, the judge’s entering the facility and Mirandizing Tsarnaev was done over the FBI’s objection. And apart from the transcript of that hearing, the incommunicado status continued until he was transferred to a military prison hospital later in the week.

During his first few days in the hospital, prior to the disruption of the questioning by the court hearing just mentioned, Tsarnaev was interrogated by a highly specialized team that had originally been assembled to question Osama bin Laden should the opportunity arise. As to how a badly injured, intubated, and presumably heavily medicated individual could respond to such questioning, CNN was told that it took place during “sedation holidays,” periods when the patient’s medication is suspended, normally used by doctors to assess medical issues, and that he communicated in writing.

During this period Tsarnaev was refused several requests for legal counsel, according to a person the Los Angeles Times identified as “a senior congressional aide.”

Anonymous “officials familiar with the investigation” speak
Tsarnaev stopped speaking to investigators after he was Mirandized, and, although no results of the previous interrogation have been stated on the record, media immediately began to report what he is claimed to have said, attributing it to “officials familiar with the investigation” who agreed to speak anonymously because “they were not authorized” or “because of the sensitive nature of the subject.” A visitor from another planet might interpret such verbiage as a matter of enterprising reporters getting information from carefully cultivated sources, but anyone familiar with how Washington works will immediately recognize the formulaic language associated with government leaks.

In this way it was widely propagated with the apparent imprimatur but not the responsibility of the government that Tsarnaev admitted his and his brother’s guilt, and stated that they had acted alone, out of a desire for revenge against the US for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To say that a majority of the public was persuaded of the truth of these assertions would be an understatement. (Even the normally astute progressive commentator Glenn Greenwald ultimately accepted the assertion about Iraq and Afghanistan after some initial scepticism.)

And as time went on further bits of “information” about the case were doled out piecemeal: in addition to lesser points, that the brothers intended to attack Times Square in New York City next; that, however, they had originally wanted to bomb a 4th of July celebration but their bombs were finished earlier than expected, so that they decided to act immediately; that Tamerlan’s wife Katherine Russell had “radical Islamist” material on her computer (stated two days after police in Warwick, R.I., suddenly found it appropriate to release a six-year old mugshot of her, which immediately became a standard accompaniment to reports about her); and, finally, that Dzhokhar wrote a message on the hull of the boat where he was found which stated much of the admissions in his hospital “confession” with the addition of an expectation of joining his brother in paradise.

The “sources with knowledge of the investigation” need a better script writer (h/t tuezday). It already strains credibility that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would give investigators such a pat explanation of the bombings as the old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than more current matters provoking outrage among Muslims such as drone strikes in Yemen. But to add the uneducated suicide-bomber sentiment about going to paradise makes no sense, coming from a sociable young man conversant in social media who, while he was an indifferent college student in general (flunking American politics), was getting a B in critical writing.

One can add that officials could not make up their minds whether the boat note was written with magic marker, pen or scratching (only leaving out writing in blood; h/t wendydavis), and have not explained how Tsarnaev knew at that point that his brother was dead. (One of the leaks stated that he had run over the latter in driving away from the police shoot-out, but this is not cited in the criminal complaint against him, and is not particularly supported by the Kitzenberg photo series.)

That is to say, if the boat note really exists it was written by someone else after the fact. What then is the purpose of these leaks? I submit that the one about Islamist material on the widow’s computer shows this purpose to be to inflame public sentiment against the Tsarnaevs or Muslims in general. The government knows full well that even if it were a crime to have such material (which it is not), it cannot prove that she put it there rather than her husband. Thus the purpose of leaking the allegation to the Washington Post (which put it on the front page) can only have been to smear the woman for having been married to a presumed “radical Islamic terrorist.”

Three friends arrested
On May 1 the FBI arrested Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, two Kazakh friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who had been cooperating with the investigation, and charged them for allegedly removing incriminating items from his room. This was done with great fanfare and was accompanied in media reports by an inflammatory photograph of them and Tsarnaev flanked by two other men with faces erased (later cropped to eliminate the latter two). A bit later the FBI also arrested another friend, Robel Phillipos, the son of an Ethiopian immigrant, charging him with lying to investigators during questioning by the FBI. See, for example, CNN.

However, probable cause hearings for all three men have since been delayed, suggesting that plea negotiations with the US Attorney may be in process.

Uncle Ruslan’s behavior
When the news that his nephews were suspects broke, Ruslan Tsarni said that their alleged actions had nothing to do with Islam or Chechnya, but were because they were “losers.” Later he relented and said that Tamerlan in particular had been brainwashed into militant Islam by a mysterious Armenian nicknamed””Mischa.” But when the person whose real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov was finally located in Rhode Island it turned out that he had not seen Tamerlan in three years and that he denied ever having played such a role.

To put it mildly, whether or not one assigns importance to his CIA connections noted above, Ruslan’s behavior in this case has been peculiar. To cap it off, he and three cohorts came to the funeral home in Worcester, Mass. where Tamerlan’s body was being kept, swore the funeral home director to secrecy, and prepared the body for burial according to Muslim strictures, whereupon it was quietly sent to a small Muslim cemetery in Virginia for burial. All this was in spite of the desire by Tamerlan’s parents in Dagestan for a second autopsy or at least a photograph of the body, due to suspicion of the official narrative of how he had died.

Some people, including some at FDL, are inclined to believe government statements until they are proven false. Others believe they are false until proven true. I claim to fall in between, believing that the truth or falsity of government statements is to be determined by the evidence.

In this case at least some of the government’s statements are false, a clear example being its claim that an exploded backpack belonged to Tamerlan Tsarnaev when its markings do not match. One must also believe that its statement as to how Tamerlan died is false until such time as it is actually verified that the person being arrested in the CNN video cited above is someone other than he. The claim that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote a note on the boat hull does not pass the smell test.

On the other hand, that the Tsarnaevs had at least one explosive device during the police shoot-out seems verified by one of the Kitzenberg photos.

We are left with questions rather than answers as to who caused the bombings. One apparent explosive device photographed from some distance above does not prove that the brothers had explosives on the day of the bombings. (One of the leaked assertions is that explosive residue was found in their apartment, and another is that the Kazakh friends removed materials used to make explosives from Dzhokhar’s college room. But as said above there is no reason to believe the government’s leaks.) The criminal complaint does mention several explosives, so that if there were ever a trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the government would have to present such evidence or look foolish.

However, we cannot evaluate the situation on the basis of an assumption that there will be a trial. (There are certainly reasons to suspect there may not be one, such as that it would likely disclose aspects of relations between its agencies that the government would rather not have aired.) To believe that the Tsarnaevs caused the bombings one would have to explain the exploded backpack that apparently had belonged to a Craft operative, as well as the fact that only a short time elapsed between Dzhokhar walking away from his initial position and the explosion in that area (discounting agent Genck’s assertion that he can judge mood from a surveillance camera), as if he were unaware that it would take place. One can imagine, for example, a scenario where the backpack was only supposed to emit smoke as part of some drill, but where some nefarious individual or agency substituted the pressure cooker bomb instead.

Then, if one believes that the Tsarnaevs indeed caused the bombings, one must wonder why. Nothing in Tamerlan’s background suggests that his Islam was oriented against the US; rather, it was oriented against Russia. In the case of Dzhokhar, statements by his acquaintances suggest that he cared little about religion in the first place. (It is easy to imagine an interviewer asking a semi-conscious Dzhokhar “are you opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and getting a response like “mmm, yeah, sure.” But did they ask him how he felt about Chechnya and Dagestan not getting independence the way Kazakhstan did when the Soviet Union broke up?)

In sum, if the government wants to get yours truly, at least, to entertain the possibility that it has a case, it is going to have to come clean on issues like what Craft International was doing at the marathon and precisely who was the naked man in the CNN video if it was not Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I would also be more favorably disposed toward it if it apologized for the irresponsible leaking of Islamophobia-generating material such as what was allegedly found on Katherine Russell’s computer.

But of course the government is not going to do that, and I am left with an inability to credit its narrative of this matter.

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