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Podcast: Questions That Should Be Answered About FBI’s Conduct Before & After Boston Bombings

Surveillance photo of Tsarnaev brothers which FBI distributed after bombings.

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of thirty offenses stemming from his role in the Boston Marathon bombings, will enter the sentencing phase this week. Tsarnaev’s defense will focus on showing why Tsarnaev should not be executed, and part of the defense is likely to involve a focus on Dzhokhar’s brother, Tamerlan, and his possible relationship with the FBI—something the press and law enforcement have mostly ignored.

However, Kade Crockford, the director of the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty Project for Massachusetts, who is based in Boston, has not been ignoring important questions that should be asked about the FBI’s conduct after the bombings. Crockford writes regularly on privacy and other civil liberties issues at her Privacy SOS blogand was this week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast.

In her interview, Crockford describes how there were FBI agents who should have known Tamerlan and recognized him when they spotted him in surveillance footage because agents had investigated Tamerlan for potential involvement in terrorism. MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed in a firefight days after the bombings, might still be alive if the FBI had recognized Tamerlan and responded more appropriately. And, later in the interview, she talks about a cyber-spying bill in Congress that will give the already intrusive US surveillance state even more intrusive power and what people should know about Loretta Lynch, who has assumed the position of Attorney General.

During the discussion segment of the show, Rania Khalek and I talk about Freddie Gray, Baltimore police and the abusive police tactic known as “rough rides,” which may partly explain why Gray’s neck was 80% severed. We also talk about how the Obama administration does not know who it is killing with drones. We focus a bit of attention on the more than 900 migrants that may have died in a boat disaster. And the show wraps with some conversation about Michael Eric Dyson and his 10,000-word screed against Dr. Cornel West.

The week’s episode is available for download here. Click on the link. A window will open and audio will start to play. You can also download the episode from iTunes or listen by clicking on the player below:

GOSZTOLA: While we were all paying attention to the middle finger seen around the world, this image that went viral of Tsarnaev in his jail cell—Maybe you want to say something about the ridiculousness of all that. But, while this was going around, you were talking about this police chief in Watertown, Ed Deveau, and how people should have recognized Tamerlan Tsarnaev in video surveillance images. So would you get into that?

CROCKFORD: Something incredible happened a couple weeks ago in the local media here. There’s a show called Greater Boston, which is hosted by a guy called Jim Braude. It’s on the local PBS station, WGBH, here in Boston. And it’s a nightly news program, basically. Very centrist. They had a panel on the two-year anniversary exactly to the day, April 15, 2015, including some law enforcement people. Ed Deveau, who is the chief of police of the Watertown Police Department, and was the chief of police there when the shootout happened in that very sleepy suburban neighborhood in Boston a couple days after the bombing, and as well as the former head of basically the state public safety office, which is a position appointed by the governor and that’s Andrea Cabral.

Braude, the host of this program, asked Ed Deveau sort of point blank do you think that the feds are at fault here in any way. And I expected that Deveau would sort of brush the question off because, thus far, in Boston people have been very, very reticent to call attention, both in the press and in law enforcement communities, publicly to what I think are very obvious questions about the FBI’s behavior in this case.

I think the most obvious question—It’s pretty simple. I think even a third-grader could deduce just logically that the government’s story didn’t make any sense and yet nobody basically, except for me, in Boston was talking about this for pretty much two full years until last week or a couple weeks ago.

So the issue here is pretty simple. On Monday, the bombings happened. The official story is that by Wednesday morning the FBI had identified images of the Tsarnaevs from the marathon attack and knew that those were the guys that did the bombings and knew that between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening the FBI tried to figure out who these guys were, tried to put names to faces essentially. And, that they couldn’t and so as a result of their inability to identify the brothers they realized images publicly.

People listening to this probably remember Thursday evening, four days after the bombings. The FBI held a huge press conference in which I think every cable station covered it live, and the former head of the FBI in Boston, Rick DesLauriers, stood up on a stage and showed the world pictures of the two brothers. They posted them on the FBI’s website. The FBI’s website crashed because so many people went to the website to the look at the images. And then, about five hours later, at 10:30 pm that night, the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly killed Sean Collier, this cop at MIT, carjacked a guy in Allston, and then drove to Watertown, where they ended up getting into this crazy fire fight with cops throwing bombs in the street, etc.

The thing that has never made any sense is the FBI was forced to acknowledge that it had interviewed, investigated Tamerlan on suspicion of terrorism in 2011. And it was forced to acknowledge this because after the bombings when Tamerlan was dead after the shootout and they finally admitted they knew who the guys were, the Russian government told the press, hey, we actually told the FBI about these guys a couple years ago. We told the FBI that Tamerlan was a terrorist. So, then the FBI was forced to admit, yes, we did investigate Tamerlan in 2011. We found that there was nothing derogatory on him and we dropped it.

So the question for me always was the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Boston FBI Office, acknowledges that it interviewed and investigated Tamerlan on suspicion of terrorism in 2011 and then we’re supposed to believe that 18 months later nobody in the Boston FBI Office, not even the two agents who went and met with him on multiple occasions, at least remembered his face. And I found that very difficult to believe. So, I was asking questions about this for a long time and finally a couple of weeks ago we heard rumblings from law enforcement in Boston. Cops are asking the same question.

There was a Boston police officer, who was quoted anonymously a few weeks back in the Boston Globe by a columnist named Kevin Cullen, who is a very pro-cop guy. He raised the same question. Why didn’t those FBI agents who interviewed Tamerlan recognize him in the images that the FBI located? Why did they release the images publicly? Somebody in the FBI should’ve known.

Now, you may be thinking who cares about this. It’s sort of relevant. Well, Ed Deveau on Jim Braude’s program a couple weeks ago said I think what is really obvious, which is if these FBI agents had recognized Tamerlan or if those who did recognize him had done something about it then Sean Collier would not be dead presumably, this cop. And the shootout in Watertown never would have happened, and the reason for that is the brothers were at home all week. They didn’t run and flee. They didn’t try to go to Canada. They didn’t hide out at somebody else’s house. They essentially acted like everything was normal. Dzhokhar went back to UMass Dartmouth, where he was a student, in his dorm room. Tamerlan was at his house in Cambridge on Norfolk Street in Inman Square.

Logically, if these FBI agents had said, oh, we know these guys. That’s Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a thirty second database search reveals this is his brother, Dzhokhar, they could have apprehended them on Wednesday well before a huge series of crazy events went down that ended up not just resulting in the death of this police officer and a shootout in a civilian neighborhood, which could have killed who knows how many people, but also the declaration of what amounted to martial law the following day on Friday when we were told in Boston not to go to work, not to go to school. The subway system was shut down on a beautiful April day. None of that would have happened.

KHALEK: This is sort of conspiratorial on my part, but I always found it really suspicious that he had been interviewed by the FBI before because a part of me always wondered if they had tried to make him an informant, like maybe he was an informant gone wrong.

CROCKFORD: That’s an obvious question. It’s a question that the defense in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case in a motion last year—They asserted it. They didn’t say that it was possible. They actually said in a motion that the FBI asked Tamerlan to become an informant. They didn’t say whether or not he was an informant, but they said that they asked him to be one. And people who are interested in this should very close attention to next week, this coming week’s court proceedings because we are now possibly going to hear much, much more than we heard in the guilt phase of the trial in the upcoming sentencing phase about Tamerlan’s relationship with Dzhokhar, about Tamerlan’s possible relationship with the FBI because the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev defense team is going to be arguing that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was afraid of his older brother, that his older brother was the guy that was running this operation.

But, yeah, your question is a good one, and it’s also a question that was posed by Chuck Grassley, who is now the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, long-time Republican senator from Iowa. Chuck Grassley in an October 2013 letter to Jim Comey, the director of the FBI, raises a number of very troubling questions. Among them: Was Tamerlan approached to become an informant? My favorite part, if not, why not? Because you know the FBI usually asks. It’s typical for them to try to recruit Muslim men to become informants, especially he was a Russian-speaking Muslim guy who had pretty extensive connections in the underworld, in the drug game in Boston. So, he would have been a really great FBI asset if they could have gotten him. So, yeah, Grassley asked if not, why not?

And he also raises a number of extremely disturbing questions about what happened in Cambridge, the night the MIT police officer Sean Collier was killed. He says from what appears to be a leak, someone from the Cambridge Police Department blowing the whistle to Chuck Grassley’s office—This is way back in October 2013, just months after the bombings. He says that Cambridge police officers, even those who were assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI, did not know that there were teams of FBI agents swarming Cambridge on Thursday afternoon and evening. This is before Collier was killed.

So, Grassley says, what were those officers doing? And why didn’t the officers from the Cambridge Police Department, who were assigned to the JTTF know what was going on in their own city when the FBI’s running all of these operations all over the place, one of them just down the street from where Collier was killed? And really Grassley received insufficient responses to those questions.

The Boston Bureau and the Boston Police Department issued this weird statement in response to Grassley’s letter in which they outright deny that Tamerlan was an informant and they also say that the FBI agents that were swarming Cambridge the night Collier was killed were there on a matter unrelated to the Tsarnaev brothers, which I think is just possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard the FBI say throughout this entire case in part because it was widely broadcasted that the FBI director ordered not just every agent in Boston but literally every agent in the entire world to focus on the manhunt until these two guys were found. So, the idea that there were teams of FBI agents swarming Cambridge just down the street from where Tamerlan lived and it had nothing to do with the Tsarnaev brothers really stretches the limits of credulity I think.

GOSZTOLA: As you cover extensively and intensively, we have this massive surveillance state and it would appear if we’re going to take the FBI at their word—and I think all these questions are legitimate—something isn’t happening and seems like people should be furious that these things are not happening.

CROCKFORD: Well, that’s right and that’s why I’m raising questions about this. You know, I think some people might think why does this person who works on surveillance issues at the ACLU so obsessed with the FBI’s behavior in this terrorism case and the reason is exactly that. We are told constantly. Congress is told constantly by these deep state security agencies they need more power. They need more access to our private lives and our personal information and they shouldn’t be held down by civilian oversight or judicial oversight and that we should basically just trust that they’re acting in our best interest and they have to do it because it really, really serious bad things could happen like the Boston Marathon bombing.

Well, this entire case shows that what the FBI is saying when they go to Congress and tell those stories is really a bunch of bullshit, frankly. The FBI’s massive surveillance programs, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act dragnet, surveillance programs that that enable the FBI and NSA to on a routine basis collect all sorts of records of our communications and our buying habits, potentially even Senator Wyden has hinted our location history in bulk, on a dragnet basis. None of those things stopped the Boston Marathon bombing from happening.

For more, listen to the full interview here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."