For nearly four years, WhoWhatWhy has written repeatedly about the Boston Marathon bombing. In dozens of investigative articles, we have shown how the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) official version of the tumultuous events of April 2013 did not make sense.
Now, longtime Boston investigative journalist Michele McPhee argues persuasively in her new book, “Maximum Harm,” that the feds have been keeping important information about this tragedy from the public.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast with Jeff Schechtman, McPhee fingers Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an FBI informant gone rogue. She talks about compelling evidence that the Tsarnaev brothers were not the bombmakers, and asks how Tamerlan was able to travel back and forth to Russia despite being on two government watch lists and having no apparent financial resources.
She also discusses the role that the US intelligence community played in covering up the key fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was one of its protected “assets.”
If you’ve been following this story here on WhoWhatWhy, this is a must listen.
Editor’s Note: see here for our in-depth book review of Maximum Harm.
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Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Almost four years ago to the day, on April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs detonated 12 seconds and 210 yards apart, near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon. 3 people were killed, several hundred others were injured, including sixteen who lost limbs. Beyond these facts, the story of the Tsarnaev brothers and the complex web of events that led to that day are very much an open question. The more or less official narrative long touted by authorities of the lone wolf Muslim extremist has long since been discredited. The story that is emerging of what really might have happened in Boston has some eerie parallels to today’s headlines: Russia, the FBI, FBI informants, counterterrorism agents not informing the FBI, etc. And now a new book by longtime Boston-based investigative journalist Michele McPhee brings new light to the story and reinforces what many have been trying to point out for many years. Michele McPhee has been nominated for three Emmy awards for investigative journalism and works as a Boston-based producer for Bryan Ross’s investigative unit at ABC News. She’s the host of the Daily Radio Talk Show and wrote an award-winning column for the Boston Herald. She’s the author of numerous books and articles, and it is my pleasure to welcome Michele McPhee here to talk about her latest work: Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI and the Road to the Marathon Bombing. Michele, thanks so much for joining us.
Michele McPhee: What an introduction! Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: As you began to try and uncover the layers and layers and layers of this story, to what extent did you work back from the official narrative and try and uncover or was that something that essentially went out the window pretty early on as you began to find out more and more about what had transpired vis-à-vis the Tsarnaev brothers?
Michele McPhee: As early as April 18, 2013 and many will remember that as the day that the FBI released the photos of suspect White Hat and suspect Black Hat. It seemed odd. The press conference was abrupt, local law enforcement had complained that the FBI released the images to television reporters and to the public before they consulted with anyone in any of the surrounding towns. But as early as Tuesday, you might recall that the FBI overtook a hangar at the Black Falcon Terminal, a cruise terminal here in Boston. There, they were going through reams and reams of evidence, most importantly photos and videos taken from the scene. On Tuesday, I got a phone call from multiple forces talking about an altercation that took place in this evidence hangar. What had happened was there were a number of FBI agents that were sitting at one of these terminals off in a corner and they appeared to be comparing photos of suspect Black Hat and suspect White Hat to photos, including a mugshot of people who looked like the older brother: Tamerlan Tsarnaev. There was a verbal altercation at the terminal. There were accusations hurled. You knew, once again, the FBI knew and you didn’t share it with us. From that point forward, there were just non-stop murmurings about whether or not the FBI knew exactly who the marathon bombers were and once again, they weren’t sharing. You may recall that Boston has a long and sordid history of infuriating local law enforcement with cases like Whitey Bulger and Mark Rossetti, who were FBI sponsored informants who were essentially given a free pass to continue to commit crimes as grotesque as murder, and Whitey Bulger did.
Jeff Schechtman: What is it about Boston and the arrangements that exist there between the police, the FBI, other law enforcement that seems to constantly lead back to these cases happening?
Michele McPhee: I don’t know what it is about Boston, but I know that it keeps happening. This particular case was egregious, especially when Sean Collier was assassinated in cold blood. Of course, in Maximum Harm, I’m not blaming federal officials in any way for what took place on April 15, 2013. Informants have always been a necessary evil in order to combat everything from biker gangs and organized crime, and most recently after 9/11, terrorism. It’s necessary to make these unholy alliances with confidential informants in order to take down these terrorists. Nobody is blaming the government for what took place on April 15, but certainly, if they know who the Tsarnaev brothers were, I think it really raises an eyebrow. I’m incredulous and I know a lot of other people are, that the FBI talks about an open case against Tamerlan Tsarnaev in March of 2011. In fact, just this week, the FBI very strangely released a single report about one of the visits they had made to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s home in 2011 and talking about how he was desperate to become a citizen. But what the FBI didn’t tell us at the time was why they didn’t recognize Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Now you and I, we’ve been in this profession for a while, if you interviewed somebody, face to face multiple times and then their picture emerges as a suspect in the marathon bombing, don’t you think that you would remember what they look like?
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the fact though, that the FBI seemed to lose control of their informant in this case, particularly when one looks at the trips back and forth that Tamerlan Tsarnaev took between Russia and the US and moving back and forth with complete impunity.
Michele McPhee: Well, in some reports it was a different agency altogether for that sort of travel. Remember, the FBI cannot operate overseas and the CIA cannot operate domestically, but when you look into Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s history from his arrival in the United States in 2002, he had a connection to the CIA via his uncle. We all remember, perhaps the uncle that came out and declared his nephews were losers. He was sort of a national celebrity for a little bit just because he was outspoken about what his nephews had done. Well, Ruslan Tsarnaev in 2002, was married to Samantha Ankara Fuller, who was the daughter of a CIA official named Graham Fuller. In 2002, Graham Fuller was the CIA station chief in Ankara, Turkey, which is exactly where the whole Tsarnaev family originated their political asylum case from. The whole family from Russia gets into the country via Ankara, Turkey, where Ruslan’s father-in-law was the station chief. Obviously, the FBI was not the only agency that had interaction with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but how they lost control, and that’s what you’re referring to, is this travel. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had raised alarm bells in Russia with counterterrorism officials. They sent a warning to the FBI legal attaché in Russia saying: “We have intercepted text messages between a Canadian jihadi and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. We’re concerned; this is the information we have been able to gather.” That, of course is what sparked the FBI’s original visits to the Tsarnaev household in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well, apparently they opened the case and they claimed they shut the case in June. But that didn’t stop any interaction between the FSD and American counterterrorism officials. In September of 2011, the FSD sent a second letter, this time to the CIA saying we’ve intercepted more alarming text messages and emails between Tamerlan Tsarnaev of Cambridge, Massachusetts and well known jihadi and jihadi sympathizers here in Russia. We believe he is going to travel to Russia and join the jihad. Well, inexplicably that was ignored and in January of 2012, that’s exactly what Tamerlan Tsarnaev did. The only action that US counterterrorism officials took was adding him to two separate terror watch lists. So, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, when he left the country in January of 2012 was on two terror watch lists, he did not have an American passport, he traveled with a passport that had been issued in Kyrgyzstan and yet while he was in Russia, he reported that passport stolen. He spent more than six months in a terrorist hotbed in Dagestan and returned while on two separate watch lists, this time without his Kyrgyz passport and breezes through customs with no problems whatsoever. A lot of people in law enforcement say that people had to have pulled the strings to allow Tamerlan to get in and out of the country with such ease while he’s on all of these terror watch lists.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent was the Department of Homeland Security involved and what was their interaction with the FBI in this case?
Michele McPhee: Well, the Department of Homeland Security had a completely separate case going on, which targeted a group of Eritrean drug dealers who were running drugs up and down the east coast and mailing and sending some of the money back to al-Shabaab. That was a very important case to the Department of Homeland Security. One of the targets in that case just happened to be a close friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. That case was taken down with the help of a confidential informant that many people believe was Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the FBI’s persistent denials of their involvement with Tsarnaev.
Michele McPhee: I think there’s a term for it; it’s called fedspeak. Despite their carefully worded denials, there is really no conclusive evidence that they didn’t use him as an informant. In fact, there’s this persistent evidence that they did. Because upon Tamerlan’s return to the United States, he immediately was a candidate for citizenship. Now, we all know the USCIS has a policy that you can’t even apply to become a naturalized American citizen if you’ve been arrested. It’s called the good moral character clause. Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been arrested in 2009 for a domestic violence charge. So it was completely inexplicable and remains inexplicable to this day how somebody with that kind of a violent arrest record, who is unemployed, who just returned from a trip overseas where he had been spotted interacting with terrorists, somebody who was on these terror watch lists, suddenly is a candidate for citizenship. Not only was his naturalization application reopened, but it was backtracked according to the instructor general’s report by his FBI handler, somebody who is assigned to the counterterrorism unit of the Boston FBI office. So there was this back and forth, when he gets back, all of a sudden he’s going to be citizen, there’s a back and forth between the Department of Homeland Security saying “Hold on a minute, this guy is not eligible for citizenship,” they would reach out to the FBI, the FBI would urge the Department of Homeland Security, “No no, we found nothing wrong with this guy, please give him the citizenship.” This went back and forth until January 23, 2012, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev went to the Federal Building for what he believed would be his last visit before becoming a full-fledged American citizen. There was another bureaucratic snafu, something went wrong and Tamerlan Tsarnaev snapped. He ripped up his application; he petitioned for a name change. He wanted to change his name to Muaz in honor of a slain Chechen rebel. He left there angry and weeks later, he was buying the biggest and loudest pyrotechnics at a Phantom Fireworks in Seabrook, New Hampshire.
Jeff Schechtman: What else was going on with Tsarnaev that led to him snapping that day?
Michele McPhee: I think he had become increasingly radicalized. Back in Russia, every person that he met with that had been reported by the Russian Interior Ministry was tracking kills. So, there were 8 high level Islamic militants who were being sought. They would be spotted by Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a short time afterwards, they would be tracked and at least these 8 were killed. The last raid by the Russian Interior Ministry came in July of 2012. Everyone, including some of the people that Tamerlan had been in contact with that initiated the initial warning to the FBI and the CIA. There was a raid and everyone in this terrorist training camp was slain and Tamerlan Tsarnaev hightailed it out of the region the very next day with a one way ticket, paid for in cash from Moscow to Boston, where again he breezes through customs, not a problem.
Jeff Schechtman: How was the ticket paid for? Where did the money come from? What do we know about that?
Michele McPhee: We know absolutely nothing about that, but considering that the FBI report that was released just this week talks about how Tamerlan Tsarnaev told agents that he was too broke, too unemployed to go to the hajj, really, I think raises a lot of questions about how he was able to leave the country, travel to Russia, stay there without a job, without any money and suddenly pay 2050 euro cash for a one way ticket back to Boston.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about Janet Napolitano’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee where she was asked about some of this and the answers were less than forthcoming.
Michele McPhee: They were less than forthcoming and in one case, was an outright lie. One of the explanations she had for Tamerlan’s travel in and out of the country was that his name was misspelled on the travel documents. In the book, you will see that I [reveal?] the travel documents and his name was spelled exactly how everyone knew his name should be spelled, so that fell flat on its face. A short time after her testimony, Janet Napolitano resigned. She wasn’t the only high ranking Department of Homeland Security official, a DOJ official to resign. You’ll recall that the FBI director, Bob Muller, who ironically had been the US Attorney in Boston when Whitey Bulger was running amuck,well, the FBI director quit in April. The head of the Boston FBI quit in April. Even the Middlesex County District Attorney, who had had a hand in a very strange, unsolved triple homicide that took place in Massachusetts on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, he quit too. The bodies were falling. These officials clearly were not being forthcoming. We’ve heard Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House has said over and over again that the FBI steadfastly refused to cooperate with Congress in either public hearings or in classified settings with Congress. McCaul at one point was apoplectic and exploded during a hearing, saying that this information does not belong to the FBI, this information belongs to the American people. You might recall that a bipartisan delegation of Congressional lawmakers travelled to Russia for answers with Steven Seagal, the action hero. You honestly can’t make this stuff up! You have the action hero, Steven Seagal from Hard to Kill leading Congress into Russia and when a Massachussetts lawmaker named Bill Keating, a former prosecutor returned, he told reporters that the FSD was more forthcoming than the FBI.
Jeff Schechtman: What is your sense of why the FBI has been so blatant and in trying to cover this up in the face of, as you’ve laid it out here and as we’ve talked about, pretty obvious evidence?
Michele McPhee: Well, I think they can. If you look at the very carefully worded denials, it doesn’t say hey, we never had any contact with Tamerlan or we weren’t running Tamerlan; it says we didn’t recruit Tamerlan. I think that’s exactly what many in the federal government have become masterful at, this mincing of words, the very careful selection of vocabulary. Okay, so they didn’t recruit him. It’s pretty evident that Tamerlan had contact with the CIA long before he got involved with the FBI, but they certainly had a role to play in helping Tamerlan Tsarnaev get his citizenship. I think that the denials are hey, we didn’t give him a top echelon informant number, a different agency did, but that doesn’t absolve the FBI from any sort of accountability of what happened and why they didn’t share the information that they did know about Tamerlan Tsarnaev with local law enforcement. Ed Davis, the former Boston police commissioner testified in front of Congress that the FBI didn’t share information with its own officers on the joint terrorism taskforce.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the citizens of Boston and your sense of the reaction to this story as it continues to unfold.
Michele McPhee: I think initially people were somewhat incredulous. They wanted to see the evidence. You’re read the book; this is not a theory. This is in a tin foil hat conspiracy spinout. This is a roadmap of all of the evidence. Everything in that book is annotated. There’s police reports, there’s trial testimony, there’s Homeland Security reports, there’s the inspector general’s report that was commissioned by James Clapper. There is evidence that shows that something went terribly wrong with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He has been made a promise and when that promise didn’t come through, he snapped. The denials are going to remain consistent because they remained consistent for 30 years about Whitey Bulger too.
Jeff Schechtman: Why didn’t more of this come out? Why didn’t Judy Clark bring more of this out at the brothers’ trial?
Michele McPhee: Because the federal judge, George O’Toole immediately issued an order in the case that no conclusion of Tamerlan Tsarnaev whatsoever should be made during this trial and anytime Tamerlan’s name came up, it prompted an immediate outrage from federal prosecutors and they kept a tight lid on anything about Tamerlan. To this day, there are more than 1100 documents in the Tsarnaev case that are sealed, which is absolutely unusual. The case has been adjudicated, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death and every week – you can follow the case through the appeals process – every week his new defense team and his appeal is demanding that these files that they want access to be unsealed and every week, a federal judge says you’re not getting the files.
Jeff Schechtman: What, if anything do we think that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev knows about all of this?
Michele McPhee: I’m not sure how much he knows. People want to portray him as this hapless little brother who followed Tamerlan down Boylston Street, that’s definitely not that case. His Twitter account, his social media shows that he had these jihadi viewpoints and he was following radical Islam for years before those bombs were detonated on Patriots Day four years ago. Do I think that he knew that his older brother was cooperating with the federal government? Probably not. Do I think that Ibragim Todashev, the man who was slain in Orlando, Florida in May of 2013 as he was being grilled about the unsolved Massachusetts triple homicide on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 knew about Tamerlan’s cooperation? Absolutely. You might recall that early on in the case, his defense team filed paperwork, talking about how the FBI tried to make Tamerlan Tsarnaev an informant. I’m not the only one talking about this. This has been swirling through law enforcement circles in Massachusetts since the bombs went off. The defense team has hinted at this over and over again. It’s just that I think this is finally that Maximum Harm, which took a ton of work and ceaseless reporting, provides the evidence that I think Judy Clark failed to produce when she was defending Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting that so much of this, or little bits and pieces that came out initially and certainly during the trial, certainly it was as you say swirling around, that it was always met with the argument that this was somehow conspiracy theory and not true and just total nonsense and now we’re finding out a very different story.
Michele McPhee: Exactly. It’s long been a tactic that if you can’t kill the message, kill the messenger so it’s easy to portray people who believe this as conspiracy theorists or they’re going down a rabbit hole of nuttiness but there’s a paper trail. Facts are very stubborn things which is why you have not seen, since the book was released on April 4, you have not seen a denial from anyone in the federal government. The FBI has not come out and denied the facts in the book, they’ve only said that they haven’t tried to recruit Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It’s going to be tough for anyone in the federal government to deny these facts because these are facts. Another fact that should have everyone in the country startled is the federal government has said on the record: during Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial and since after his trial that the Tsarnaev brothers did not build those bombs. Well, the immediate response to that should be from everyone in the nation, then who did? Why aren’t you looking for them? That’s another one of the mysteries that is tackled in the book, about this very bizarre robbery that took place ten minutes before the MIT police officer Sean Collier was executed and during that 7/11 robbery, there was a former MIT employee who has been identified as that robber, still not arrested but in June of 2013 was arrested for a different crime altogether when he threatened his mother and said I’ve done something that I’m going to have to answer God for. His mother told police that her son had been friends with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Police execute a search warrant in his home and find every single component of the bombs that were detonated at the Boston Marathon, including ball bearings that were signature to the bombs that detonated at the finish line. Strangely and inexplicably, that man, Daniel Morley, was not prosecuted for the bombmaking material he had in his home or the threats he made against his mother or never even questioned in connection with the 7/11 robbery which his own family members have identified him as a suspect. Instead, he was put in a mental institution in Massachusetts for two years. Many people believe he was cooperating with the federal government in a different case regarding anarchists and anonymous and now he’s free, driving a bus full of senior citizens when there are a lot of people in Massachusetts who truly believe that he is the true bomb builder.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there still a Rosetta Stone for this out there? Is there something that we still need to see, to find, to understand that would help put all of this in an even clearer perspective?
Michele McPhee: I think this is a matter for Congress. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this isn’t the only time, but certainly the FBI’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with Congressional investigations is something that the whole country should be up in arms over. At this point, I truly believe that there should be a Congressional investigation into the use of confidential informants. Steven Lynch, who is a Democrat in Massachusetts has filed ceaseless legislation about FBI accountability. We’ve had horrendous cases here in Boston, but these cases have existed all over the country of course, but here in Boston, Steven Lynch is especially upset about four men who are erroneously in prison, two died in prison to protect Whitey Bulger. We know that as early as two years ago, there was another mob captain who was suspected of being involved in the shooting death of a Massachusetts state trooper who had been given a pass because he was cooperating with the FBI against the mob. I think that the real thing that needs to happen is that the Homeland Security officials who had any interaction with Tamerlan whatsoever, whether it be the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security Drug Agency, that everybody should have to answer questions about exactly what happened and not humena-humena like Janet Napolitano did in front of Congress with this nonsense that the reason they let a guy who was on two terror watch lists leave the country, spend 6 months getting radicalized and come back in, leaves – I think there needs to real questions about that.
Jeff Schechtman: Will this, in your view be grounds for more lawsuits to be brought by victims’ families against the government?
Michele McPhee: The lawsuits that have been brought against the FBI for the Whitey Bulger murders and families who are completely innocent have gone nowhere. I think that’s part of the issue. The government has escaped any culpability whatsoever when these rogue informants go bad. I think that the informer program is an absolute necessary evil. We need these unholy alliances to take down a multitude of criminals but when it goes terribly wrong, which Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not the first and I’m sure he won’t be the last, there should some sort of accountability and there should be measures put in place by Congress that prevent somebody like Tamerlan Tsarnaev from going back. Let’s be abundantly clear. In the end, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not found by law enforcement and a lot of people believe that’s because the FBI – I know this to be true – when Dzhokhar escaped that wild bomb and bullet in Watertown, he was bleeding. He abandoned that stolen Mercedes and he staggered up a tree, leaving bloody handprints and a blood trail behind. At the time, I was in Watertown like so many other reporters and I was getting text messages from sources saying we’re going to get him, we have a blood trail and then those same sources were told to back off, it was an FBI scene and so the Boston Police Homicide Squad, the state police that had dogs, they were told to back off and we all know that in the end, who found Dzhokhar? A civilian who was going out for a cigarette. The top on his boat was strew and he went to investigate. A civilian! Despite the National Guard doing door to door searches and cops in riot gear without a warrant going into people’s homes, in the end, it was a civilian who found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and when that boat was surrounded, there was a sniper from the NEMLEC Swat Team who was on the second floor of that civilian’s home and he heard Dzhokhar say over again, “The FBI is going to kill me, the FBI is going to kill me.” I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever, but it is incredibly strange that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was bleeding profusely, he leaves these bloody handprints up and down the street where he jumped out of that vehicle and yet they didn’t find him for nearly an entire day. I think it raises a whole new spectrum of questions. Then of course, there’s the question of what they were doing in Watertown in the first place. There is a police report that is referenced in Maximum Harm about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerging from 89 Dexter Avenue, which is right around where the shootout took place. There was a story in Saudi Arabia about a student who lived in that house, who had been pulled out of that place by the FBI and arrested but you never heard another word about that guy again, you never heard about 89 Dexter Ave again. Nobody knows where the bombs were built. At the very least, I think there should be some concerns about who else worked with those brothers, who built the bombs and why are we not all that concerned about finding those people?
Jeff Schechtman: There have also been reports that even prior to the bombing that they were an inordinate number of federal officials, counterterrorism officials, FBI officials in the Boston area. What do we know about that?
Michele McPhee: I’m not sure. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t dive into that in Maximum Harm. I think that’s where people can dismiss this sort of journalism as conspiracy theories: we saw all of these people with punisher backpacks on near the finish line. I mean it’s not unusual to – especially after 9/11 – to have a heavy presence of law enforcement and federal officials in an area for a major event, an international event like the Boston Marathon, the iconic Boston Marathon. However, if you looked at Cambridge on the night of April 18, 2013, and that’s how the book opens. When you looked at Cambridge and you see that the Cambridge police department responded to multiple 911 calls placed by concerned residents, the whole state’s on edge, the city’s on edge and people were calling 911 and reporting suspicious vehicles outside of their homes in Cambridge, Mass right around the neighborhood where the Tsarnaevs live, right around MIT, right around the areas where two of the codefendants live. There were surveillance teams, we’ve come to learn from the FBI in Cambridge before the photos were released, after the photos were released. Those FBI agents were, let’s just say very uncooperative with Cambridge police officers to the point where there was an altercation between the Cambridge police commissioner and a high ranking official in the Boston FBI office and all of that took place before Sean Collier was killed. So if the FBI knew who these brothers were, they should have shared that information and Sean Collier might be alive today.
Jeff Schechtman: Michele McPhee, the book is Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI and the Road to the Marathon Bombing. Michele, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Michele McPhee: Thank you so much for having me, really I enjoy the show so much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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