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Missed email, multiple spellings: How Tsarnaev's travel got lost in the system

Cambridge Police Department

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is seen in a booking photo from a 2009 arrest in Cambridge, Mass.

A Homeland Security officer assigned to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston was alerted by email that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was traveling to Russia in January 2012, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official and a congressional investigator briefed on the investigation.

But the email — sent because Tsarnaev's name was on a Homeland Security watch-listing database — generated no further scrutiny of Tsarnaev. The officer has told officials he receives hundreds of such emails and doesn't remember getting the alert about Tsarnaev's travel to Russia, said the U.S. counterterrorism official who has been briefed on details on the probe. 

Federal officials who have been reviewing the government's handling of Tsarnaev say that it is still not clear that any further steps could have been taken to monitor Tsarnaev's activities. But congressional investigators are now questioning whether there were breakdowns in communications among the agencies — in part because of different spellings used for his name — that prevented officials from piecing together clues and sharing information. 

A government-wide review has found that information about Tsarnaev had been entered into three classified counterterrorism databases: a Guardian file maintained by the FBI on all potential terror suspects, a TECS watch-listing database maintained by Homeland Security and a master TIDE list of potential or suspected terrorists maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, according to the sources and public statements by U.S. government officials.

But not all the entries were identical, using different spellings and dates of birth that government computer programs failed to match up, said the U.S. official briefed on the probe.

Sen. Lindsey Graham gives his viewpoint on whether the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security did enough to follow up on leads relating to Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The first entry in the FBI's Guardian file was generated because of the original Russian request in early 2011 reporting that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a follower of radical Islam with possible connections to "underground" groups. That triggered his entry into the TECS watch listing database and an investigation by the FBI"s Joint Terrorism Task Force — including interviews with Tsarnaev and members of his family. But agents found no negative information and closed the case. The FBI asked the Russians for more details and never got a response.

U.S. officials say that the CIA received its own report from the Russian FSB about Tsarnaev in September 2011 — and entered him into the TIDE terrorism database. Officials say the CIA, using the information it got from the Russians, entered two different spellings of his name and two different dates of birth into the TIDE system.

A U.S. intelligence official said: "The CIA shared all the information provided by the foreign government. including two possible dates of birth, his name and a possible name variant as well. No information was incorrectly entered in the watch listing system, all the information was shared precisely as the foreign government provided it."

But the counterterrorism official briefed on the probe say this may have created confusion because the primary entry was made under a spelling that was different than that used by Tsarnaev — one letter was off — and which had been entered into the FBI's Guardian database.

When Tsarnaev showed up at the airport for his January 2012 trip to Russia, Customs and Border Patrol officers noticed his entry in the TECS system, triggering the email to the CBP agent assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. But while Tsarnaev was subjected to some extra questioning, agents had no grounds to prevent him from traveling. "It's not like he was going to Yemen or Somalia," said the official briefed on the probe.

By the time Tsaernaev returned, his name had been purged from the TECS watch-listing database because of time limits on how long "U.S. persons" can stay in the database when there is no additional derogatory information, the official said. The FBI also took no further steps to question Tsarnaev about the reasons for his trip or who he met with overseas, officials say. 

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