Privacy SOS

FBI may have searched phone dragnet records during 2011 investigation of Tsarnaev

Later today I'll post a much longer blog examining in detail the House Homeland Security Committee's report on the failures that led to the Boston marathon attacks. For now, I simply want to highlight something that jumped out at me.

On page 13, the report describes some of the things the FBI did when it first investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev, during March, April, May, and June of 2011.

In the course of their inquiry, the Boston JTTF checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history. No links to terrorism were uncovered in these records checks and investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s background. The investigators then interviewed his parents and Tamerlan Tsarnaev himself. The FBI did not find any evidence of terrorist activity, and this information was provided to the Russian government in the summer of 2011.

The FBI searched government databases and other information for "derogatory telephone communications." Are we to assume this means the FBI either searched or tasked the NSA to search the 215 metadata phone dragnet for any interesting information that appeared on Tsarnaev's call history? If so, performing this search apparently provided zero value to the FBI.

The FBI claims to have investigated Tsarnaev only at the lowest tier of investigation, called an "assessment". If this report says what I think it says, it means the FBI has broad authority to query the NSA phone dragnet, even in cases where it has no reasonable suspicion to believe that someone has committed or intends to commit a crime. A lot of good it did here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.