The Boston Marathon bombing, one year on
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One year has passed since twin explosions along the finish-line of America’s most prestigious marathon sent shock waves across the world.
On the afternoon of April 15, two explosions occurred at the famed Boston Marathon. IEDs devised from pressure cookers, low explosive powder, shrapnel, adhesive, and other materials were hidden in backpacks that were then placed near metal barricades in areas packed with hundreds of spectators.
“Each explosion killed at least one person, maimed, burned and wounded scores of others, and damaged public and private property, including the streets, sidewalk, barriers, and property owned by people and businesses in the locations where the explosions occurred,” according to court documents.
The three individuals killed by the bombings were Krystle Marie Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and eight-year-old Martin Richard.
The past year has borne witness to a host of complex developments in the case with considerable implications at the municipal, federal, and international levels.
As suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his team scramble to prepare a capital defense in time for the upcoming trial, high-level US officials are looking for someone to blame for the lapses in intelligence that appear to have allowed the Tsarnaev brothers to allegedly prepare for the attacks unimpeded.
Tsarnaev was arrested on April 19 following a dramatic manhunt that killed his brother and co-suspect Tamerlan, as well as MIT Police Officer Sean Collier.
He was initially charged in a criminal complaint dated April 21 with the use of a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death. Then on June 27, a federal grand jury returned a 30-count indictment against Dhzokhar, charging him with a plethora of charges related to the bombings and the MIT officer’s death.
At an arraignment hearing on July 10, Dzhokhar pleaded not guilty to all charges pending against him.
US prosecutors filed their notice of intent to pursue capital punishment against Tsarnaev on January 30.
In addition to asserting various statutory threshold findings that justified, in their view, the decision to pursue the death penalty against Tsarnaev, prosecutors advanced a variety of aggravating factors contributing to the decision. These factors ranged from the vulnerability of the attack’s youngest victim, to Tsarnaev’s apparent lack of remorse.
“[Tsarnaev] received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people [there],” the notice asserted, among other factors.
The ensuing pre-trial proceedings have been packed with action and drama.
Between late February and early March, the defense and prosecution exchanged various barbs.
Complaining of “FBI monitoring” and efforts by prison staff to screen certain defense materials, Tsarnaev’s defense team filed documents on February 20 requesting that the court vacate all special restrictions imposed against their client.
Shortly thereafter, prosecutors defended the restrictions. A motion filed on February 28 emphasized a detrimental remark that Tsarnaev allegedly made during a visit with his sister in the presence of an FBI officer.
The prosecution than took a swing at the defense team, arguing: “In seeking to control the government – as opposed to their client – the defense relies almost exclusively upon the issue of mitigation. In doing so, they claim that the mere presence of an investigator during a social visits [sic.] turns everything said during that visit into protected work-product.”
Tsarnaev’s defense team then referred to the prosecution’s emphasis on the comment as a “red herring,” or information intended to be misleading and distracting.
Likewise, following the recent decision by US prosecutors to pursue the death penalty against Tsarnaev, the defense team sought a start date no earlier than September 2015.
At the time, the defense team argued that physical evidence still tied up with the US law enforcement authorities remained a major issue. “The defense has not yet had an opportunity to review numerous additional items of physical evidence, including nearly 2,000 items that reportedly are still being analyzed by the FBI and items kept at additional locations,” the defense team argued.
Against the objections of the prosecution, Tsarnaev’s jury trial is set to commence on November 3 of this year.
Prosecutors anticipate that the trial will span approximately 12 weeks, and that if Tsarnaev is convicted the sentencing hearing will require an additional six weeks, as explained in a status report filed jointly by the prosecution and defense Monday.
Meanwhile, for certain high-ranking intelligence officials, mourning seems to have given way to an intercontinental blame game over the gaps and lapses that may have paved the way for the attacks.
A high-level report published by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) on April 10 pointed a finger at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), alleging that it had failed to provide adequate follow-up information to its initial warnings about Tsarnaev.
“In 2011, two years before the Boston Marathon bombings, [deceased bombing suspect] Tamerlan Tsarnaev and [his mother] Zubeidat Tsarnaeva came to the attention of the FBI based on information received from the FSB,” said the report, which was produced by the Inspectors General for the DOJ, the Intelligence Community, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The FSB information came in the form of a Russian-language memo given to the FBI’s Legal Attaché in Moscow, the OIG report explained.
Among other things, the memo warned of Tamerlan’s increasing religious fervor and of his interest in unspecified “bandit underground groups.” The memo provided certain personal data, and requested that the FBI provide specific information as well, such as potential travel by Tamerlan to Russia.
The FBI used a variety of methods to assess the threat that Tamerlan posed, including database searches, “drive-bys” of the family’s home, and interviews with Tamerlan and his parents.
Contingent upon the assumption that further damning information wouldn’t surface, the case was closed on June 24, 2011. An FBI Special Agent handling the assessment was instructed, however, to contact the FSB “to request additional derogatory information about Tamerlan because the information in the original [memo] wasn’t enough,” according to the report.
The Moscow legal attaché then reportedly sent two letters to the FSB: in August and October 2011. The first was marred by a notable error: the classification of Tamerlan as a former Kyrgyz prosecutor. The second corrected the first and provided additional information about Tamerlan and his mother that had emerged during the assessment.
The report concluded on this point: “The DOJ OIG found no documentation or other information that the FSB responded to either letter prior to the bombings.”
In layman’s terms: "They found that the Russians did not provide all the information that they had on him back then, and based on everything that was available, the FBI did all that it could," a senior US official familiar with the report told The New York Times.
In addition to accusing Russia of failing to respond to its requests, the report highlighted a number of homegrown shortcomings as well.
It was widely reported in March that though the US had taken seriously the threat that Tsarnaev may have posed, a misspelling of his surname may have allowed him to slip through airport security undetected on his return to the US from Russia.
The OIG report touched on this issue specifically. As stated above, the attaché received the information in Russian. The FBI then relied on a translation of the FSB memo that misspelled Tsarnaev and Tsarnaeva as Tsarnayev and Tsarnayeva respectively.
The report wrote off the error as follows: “After reviewing a draft of the report, the FBI commented that there is no standard transliteration of names from Cyrillic to Roman characters.”
Furthermore, cooperation between the relevant intelligence communities within the US appears to have been less than exemplary. The FBI and CIA failed to work together as envisioned in the Memoranda of Understanding (MOU).
“The federal agencies that handled information concerning relevant individuals and events prior to the bombings frequently have intersecting and sometimes overlapping responsibilities in conducting counterterrorism activities,” the report explained. The MOU strives to keep these agencies from stepping on each other’s toes.
The CIA and DOJ OIGs agreed that the FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow had dropped the MOU ball by failing to coordinate with the CIA after receiving the FSB memo in March 2011. At the same time, the report concluded that the CIA’s involvement at that stage would not likely have meaningfully assisted the FBI in preventing the attack.
Likewise, the second letter that the Moscow legal attaché purportedly sent in October 2011 was unsupported by MOU documentation, according to the report.
In fact, the failure of intelligence and investigative agencies to cooperate closely enough in order to adequately avert crises is nothing new.
The 9/11 Commission Report famously pointed out the failure of certain US agencies to cooperate properly in the lead-up to the attacks. Among the Commission’s recommendations were: “unifying the intelligence community with a new National Intelligence Director” and “unifying the many participants in the counterterrorism effort and their knowledge in a network-based information-sharing system that transcends traditional governmental boundaries.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established in 2005.
In the direct aftermath of the attacks last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin likewise called for greater cooperation between international intelligence and investigative bodies in order to fill the gaps in the global fight against terrorism.
“I just call for [the Boston Marathon bombing] tragedy to be an incentive for us to become closer in tackling common threats, with terrorism being one of the most important and dangerous of them. If indeed we combine our efforts, we won’t take such hits and sustain such losses,” he said during a televised press conference, as quoted by RIA Novosti.