There’s a remarkable statement buried at the bottom of Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen’s farewell to the soon-departing special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, Vince Lisi. According to the law enforcement friendly Cullen, Lisi was uncharacteristically open during their interview. “Lisi is the most candid FBI leader in Boston, ever,” Cullen writes.
But the friendly goodbye column closes with reporting that strikes a vastly different tone:
For the record, Lisi denied that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a firefight with Watertown police, was an FBI informant. He also denied that Ibragim Todashev, a suspected accomplice of Tsarnaev in a triple murder in Waltham, was an FBI informant.
Todashev was shot dead by an FBI agent in Florida two months after the Marathon bombings, after he allegedly attacked the agent and a Massachusetts state trooper.
That I had to ask the question — and that there are others in law enforcement who suspect that one or both were FBI informants — suggests whoever replaces Vince Lisi has their work cut out for them. Like statutes, candor has its limitations.
Talk about burying the lede.
Suspicions have long swirled in Boston about the true nature of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s relationship with the FBI, dating back to at least 2011. In March 2014 the defense team for Tamerlan’s younger brother filed a brief in federal court asserting that the FBI had tried to recruit the elder Tsarnaev. The FBI has always denied that Tamerlan ever worked for them in any capacity as an informant. In response to the Tsarnaev defense motion, the DOJ reported that it could discover “no evidence” to support the claim that the Bureau approached Tamerlan with such a request.
But despite these denials, the rumors Globe columnist Kevin Cullen reports do not constitute the first public questions government officials have raised about the FBI’s conduct—or honesty—in this case.
Back in October 2013, Senator Chuck Grassley wrote the FBI a public letter asking, among other questions, whether Tamerlan was ever approached to inform for the FBI—and if not, why not. Grassley’s letter was apparently prompted by concerns brought to the Iowa republican by Cambridge law enforcement whistleblowers.
Among those whistleblowers may have been an MIT police officer who was on duty the night officer Sean Collier was killed on campus. The officer later told local reporters that he and other MIT cops suspected the FBI knew where Tamerlan was that fateful night, and that the bomber was under FBI surveillance. (This is notable in part because the FBI’s official narrative states that the Bureau did not know who the brothers were until much later, after a firefight in Watertown that ended with Tamerlan’s death and Dzokhar’s escape.)
Watertown police chief Ed Deveau has since publicly questioned the FBI’s conduct that week, suggesting that had the bureau recognized the man they’d previously investigated, Collier would be alive and the shootout in his town never would have happened.
Rumors about Tamerlan’s involvement with the FBI are nothing new. Despite having paid very close attention to the case over the past few years, however, I’ve never heard that Ibragim Todashev, the man killed by FBI agents in Orlando just a month after the marathon attacks, could have also been an informant. During the Tsarnaev trial, Todashev’s mother in law stood outside of federal court in Boston holding a sign emblazoned with a photo of her deceased son in law, along with the words “I am dead because I knew the Tsarnaevs. I knew the truth.” (Read much more about the strange case of the Todashev killing here, here, and here.)
Russian American journalist Masha Gessen wrote a book about the Tsarnaev brothers, in which she asserts that “the explanation that best fits the facts” in the case is “a cover-up.” Upon the publication of Gessen’s book in April 2015, none other than former DHS head Janet Napolitano took to the New York Times opinion pages to slam the author as a conspiracy theorist. But according to local gumshoe Kevin Cullen, there are plenty of local cops in the Boston area who think there’s something to that theory.
And in a few weeks, the Hollywood film about the Boston FBI’s most infamous informant ever, Whitey Bulger, airs in move theaters nationwide.