The FBI’s Increasingly Odd Silence on Boston Bombing

hush, secret
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Geoffrey Meyer-van Voorthuijsen / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As another mega-budget Hollywood movie about the Boston Marathon bombing nears release,  the mainstream media are finally addressing the many unanswered questions concerning the mastermind of the bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

And yet — four years after the bombing and two years after Tamerlan’s younger brother Dzhokhar was sentenced to death for his role — the feds still aren’t talking.

WhoWhatWhy readers will be familiar with most of these open questions:

•  How was Tamerlan able to travel back and forth to the country from which he sought asylum in 2012, despite being on multiple terror watchlists?

•  Why was he not questioned about the 2011 murder of three of his friends?

•  Was Tamerlan working for or manipulated by the feds for some purpose?

•  Was the FBI or some other federal agency using Tamerlan’s desire to become a US citizen as leverage?

•  Did the Tsarnaevs have help constructing the bombs?

•  Was anyone else involved in planning or inspiring the plot?

As we highlighted in April, ABC News investigative reporter Michele McPhee published a damning exposé which documents the suspicion in Boston’s local law enforcement that the FBI is covering up its interactions with Tamerlan Tsarnaev prior to the bombing. McPhee’s investigation led her to conclude that there is indeed an FBI cover-up afoot.

More recently, WBUR’s (Boston’s NPR station) Meghna Chakrabarti produced an hour-long special titled “Unanswered Questions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.” Taking off from McPhee’s findings, the radio program explores some of the mysteries about which the government remains tight-lipped.

Chakrabarti concludes: “There is still a tight shroud of secrecy wrapped around much of this case.”

While she is more circumspect about the possibility of a cover-up, her long and detailed account points to a raft of strange coincidences and anomalies that scream for further explanation.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Unanswered Questions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev by Jamie Bologna and Meghna Chakrabarti (left). Maximum Harm by Michele McPhee. Photo credit: WBUR and ForeEdge

It’s not just the media that’s still being shut out.

As Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s automatic federal death penalty appeal gets underway, prosecutors are refusing to turn over “classified” documents to Tsarnaev’s appellate lawyers.

What’s in those “classified” documents? It’s impossible to say, but they would likely shed some light on the unresolved mysteries surrounding Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The lead prosecutor in Tsarnaev’s trial, William Weinreb, told WBUR that he thinks “it is fair to say that there are still a number of questions unanswered about that case. Maybe the answers will emerge over time.”

Sounds like the lead prosecutor was also kept in the dark.

Epidemic of Secrecy

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The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, from the beginning, cloaked in unprecedented levels of secrecy.

Various media organizations raised issues with the inordinate number of sealed motions during the high-profile trial.

The attorney who defended Whitey Bulger — another notorious Boston killer the feds were eager to distance themselves from — characterized Tsarnaev’s trial as an “epidemic of secrecy.”

Bulger, the South Boston mobster, was employed by the FBI for years as an informant — all the while carrying on his murderous mob operations in and around Boston. Bulger’s attorney, Jay Carney, told the Boston Globe “transparency should be the presumption” instead of all the secrecy and sealed documents in the Tsarnaev trial.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, FBI Suspects 1 and 2.
Photo credit: FBI

That didn’t happen. The government invoked that old standby “national security,”  allowing it to shroud important details of the back story in darkness.

Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told Politico that the information lockdown “tells you that major parts of this case are being conducted out of the public view. If ever there was a case that cries out to be conducted in a public forum, this is it. It’s pretty shocking.”

The judge in the case, George A. O’Toole Jr., ignited a veritable firestorm among Boston media when, three months after the conclusion of the trial, he continued to refuse to release the names of jurors.

Experts quoted in media accounts at the time characterized the long delay as “unprecedented,” “an aberration,” and as having “no possible rationale.”

Even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense team, who presumably have a right to unfettered access to evidence against their client, found themselves filing numerous motions complaining to the judge about a lack of cooperation from the FBI and prosecution during the discovery phase of the trial.

Compounding their difficulties, Tsarnaev was placed on draconian Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that severely limited the defense team’s ability to interact freely with their client. It also continues to prevent Tsarnaev from communicating with anyone from the media — as WhoWhatWhy found out when we were given a Kafkaesque runaround after we requested an interview.

Congress Shut Out

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Because of FBI stonewalling, a delegation of congressmen felt compelled to travel to Russia, trying to get answers about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Upon returning, Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) said the FSB were more forthcoming than the FBI. (The FSB is Russia’s federal security service.)

Russia had warned the FBI back in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was becoming radicalized, and might be making plans to travel to Russia to engage in terrorist activity. The FBI claims to have conducted an assessment of Tsarnaev but found no links to terrorism and closed the investigation.

The FBI’s pre-bombing interest in Tsarnaev thus came under intense, albeit short-lived, scrutiny.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee which oversees the FBI, wrote a scathing letter to then-Director James Comey complaining about a lack of transparency to his oversight committee.

When the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community published an unclassified summary of “intelligence failures” that led up to the bombing, it too noted a lack of cooperation from the FBI, writing that “access to certain information was significantly delayed.”

And when 47 inspectors general from various executive agencies sent a letter to Congress in 2014 complaining about a growing problem of stonewalling of investigations by numerous executive branch agencies, the FBI’s lack of cooperation on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation was cited front and center.

As a result of that letter, a bipartisan Congressional coalition introduced an amendment to the original 1978 Inspector General Act. Grassley, a cosponsor of the amendment, wrote at the time that a “federal agency’s failure to give its inspector general timely access to information as required by law raises red flags. It begs the question, ‘What are you trying to hide?’”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Street Scene (Aaron “tango” Tang / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (US Marshals Service) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Wikimedia).

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