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Newly released records cast doubt on FBI claims about its actions in Cambridge days after marathon bombings

Newly released Cambridge Police Department records cast doubt on FBI claims about its agents’ activities in Cambridge in the critical hours before the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier, carjacked another man, and engaged in a spectacular firefight with police officers in a quiet suburban residential neighborhood in Watertown. The new records provide additional backdrop to rumors among local law enforcement that the FBI has greatly misrepresented the truth about its knowledge of and relationship to the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Some background is required in order to understand the significance of the newly disclosed documents.

Four days after the bombings, on Thursday, April 18, 2013 at approximately 5:30 PM, the FBI held a press conference where it published images of the Tsarnaev brothers. At that time the FBI claimed it did not know the identities of the brothers—a puzzling claim given that the Boston JTTF office investigated the elder Tsarnaev and reportedly tried to cultivate him as an informant. About five hours after the FBI released the images, MIT police officer Sean Collier was gunned down in his police cruiser on the MIT campus, setting off a bizarre chain of events culminating in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the following day, the capture of his little brother. What happened in the intervening five hours on Thursday night between when the FBI released the photos and when Collier was gunned down is a mystery some even in the law enforcement community appear to think demands an explanation from the FBI.

The public first learned that something about the official timeline of events might have been amiss when Senator Chuck Grassley sent a public letter to the FBI in October 2013, asking the FBI director about his agency’s conduct in Cambridge that night, as well as other uncomfortable questions. The letter appeared to be based on whistleblower testimony from local police. Grassley wrote:

In the hours leading up to the shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Police Officer Sean Collier and the death of the older suspect involved in the bombing, sources revealed that uniformed Cambridge Police Department officers encountered multiple teams of FBI employees conducting surveillance in the area of Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Iowa republican asked the FBI director to clarify what exactly his agents were doing swarming an area in Cambridge about a mile from where Tamerlan Tsarnaev lived, on Norfolk street, just hours before Collier was killed. “Was the FBI conducting surveillance in the area of Central Square in the City of Cambridge on the night MIT Officer Sean Collier was shot dead?” Grassley asked. “Was the surveillance being conducted in Cambridge on either of the Tsarnaev brothers, their associates or people later confirmed to be their acquaintances?”

The FBI flatly denied that its agents were watching the Tsarnaev brothers that night, issuing a statement claiming that at the time the FBI didn’t know the identities of the brothers, and that “[t]he Joint Terrorism Task Force was at M.I.T., located in Cambridge, MA, on April 18, 2013, on a matter unrelated to the Tsarnaev[s].” Ultimately, one local police officer went public with his skepticism about these claims.

MIT officer Clarence Henniger told local reporters that police in the area knew the FBI was watching the brothers well before Sean Collier’s murder. “The word was out, regarding the suspects,” he said. “We know how they looked like, and we knew that they lived in the city of Cambridge at one point…We knew that his house was under surveillance, and the Feds were all over the city of Cambridge…knowing that he, they lived there. So we were aware of that.” 

After Henniger’s statement went public, the FBI was again forced to respond. The Bureau’s on-scene commander in Cambridge that night told another reporter that agents were in Cambridge that evening “following up on leads far and wide which included following up on leads on the MIT campus. Everywhere we could, where we had a lead, we would follow-up immediately,” he said. But he reiterated that while the agents were in Central Square investigating a matter related to the bombings, they were not investigating the Tsarnaevs, who just so happened to live up the street. 

Newly released Cambridge Police Department records cast further doubt on these official claims. Obtained via public records request by local journalist and advocate Saul Tannenbaum, the police incident reports provide new information relating to a curious statement included in Grassley’s 2013 letter to the FBI. In the letter, Grassley states:

In the hours leading up to the shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Police Officer Sean Collier and the death of the older suspect involved in the bombing, sources revealed that uniformed Cambridge Police Department officers encountered multiple teams of FBI employees conducting surveillance in the area of Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is unclear who the FBI was watching, but these sources allege that the Cambridge Police Department, including its representation at the JTTF, was not previously made aware of the FBI’s activity in Cambridge.

According to the newly released Cambridge Police Department records, the FBI didn’t only fail to inform the Cambridge police in advance that its agents would be investigating people or places connected to the bombings in their city that night. At least one agent, driving a car with a partially obscured license plate, also refused to provide identification to a Cambridge cop.

An incident report dated April 18, 2013 states that at 6:02 PM someone reported to Cambridge police the presence of two suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of Hamilton, Erie, and Magazine streets (about 1.3 miles from Tsarnaev’s house). An officer responded to the scene, and reported that the first vehicle checked out—it was not suspicious. The second vehicle, however, had a partially covered license plate, and when the Cambridge officer asked the person behind the wheel to show some identification, the person identified as a federal agent but refused to show ID.

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Another police report the CPD disclosed to Tannenbaum in response to his request about FBI activity in Cambridge that night describes an additional suspicious person report, this one filed at 8:35 PM. The second report states that someone called the police to say a suspicious, dark SUV was following them in the vicinity of Allston street and Brookline street, just a few blocks from the agent who hours before had refused to provide identification to the Cambridge cop. The second report doesn’t explicitly mention an FBI connection, but the connection can be inferred by the CPD’s decision to release it to Tannenbaum in response to his request, which sought “any and all logs, reports, email or other correspondence regarding Cambridge Police Officers’ encounters with FBI or other Federal law enforcement agencies on the evening of April 18th prior to the shooting of Officer Sean Collier of the MIT Police.”

The FBI has long maintained that while its agents were indeed in Cambridge the evening before Collier’s murder, they were in the city investigating matters unrelated to the Tsarnaev brothers. But the correspondence between the Cambridge Police Department’s communications person and requester Saul Tannenbaum strongly suggests the CPD released the documents because the department is operating from a different understanding. The CPD initially denied Tannenbaum’s request in April 2014, citing ongoing investigations and federal prosecution(s). At the time of that initial denial letter, the Department of Justice had already announced its intention to seek the death penalty in Tsarnaev’s federal prosecution. After Tsarnaev’s trial concluded, Tannenbaum again asked the CPD for the same records. This time, the CPD released the records within a month, making no mention of any related ongoing investigations or federal prosecutions. These records, taken within the context of the CPD’s correspondence with Tannenbaum and the timing of the Tsarnaev prosecution, strongly suggest that at least in the eyes of the Cambridge Police Department, the federal agents reported as suspicious in the Central Square area the night of the Collier killing were in fact investigating matters related to the Tsarnaevs. 

Perhaps Mr. Grassley will write another letter to the FBI, based on this new information. Certainly, the people of Boston deserve to hear more about what exactly the FBI was doing in Cambridge that night. 

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.