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Intelligence system FAIL: Tsarnaev wiretapped, listed in terrorism database

Apr 28, 20135 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

The U.S. Intelligence community had Tamerlan Tsarnaev on their radar 18 months ago. The Russians wiretapped him discussing jihad and warned the U.S. Was the ball dropped? Could the coming tsunami of more surveillance and less constitutionally-protected rights boil down to spelling errors?

The Associated Press reported that Tamerlan Tsarnaev showed up on U.S. intelligence radar about 18 months ago. The CIA wanted Tsarnaev’s name added to the terrorist database, which is called “TIDE, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment,” after the Russian government contacted the agency in September 2011 with concerns that he had become a follower of radical Islam.

Russia’s internal security service had previously warned the FBI in March 2011. The FBI “interviewed Tsarnaev and his family members but found nothing connecting him to terror activity.” In June 2011, the FBI closed the review of Tsarnaev, but “because of the subsequent FBI inquiry, Tsarnaev’s name was added to a Homeland Security Department database used by U.S. officials at the border to help screen people coming in and out of the U.S. That database is called the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, or TECS.”

Then, in late September 2011, Russia separately contacted the CIA with nearly identical concerns about Tsarnaev. The Russians provided two possible birthdates for him and a variation of how his name might be spelled, as well as the spelling in the Russian-style Cyrillic alphabet. The CIA determined that Tsarnaev should be included in TIDE, and the National Counterterrorism Center added it into the database. The spelling of Tsarnaev’s name in TIDE was not the same as the spelling the FBI used in its investigation. The CIA also shared this information with other federal agencies in October.

In January 2012, the TECS database generated an alert on Tsarnaev before he flew to Russia. “That alert was shared with a Customs and Border Protection officer who is a member of the FBI’s Boston joint terrorism task force.” However the “airline on which Tsarnaev was traveling misspelled his name when it submitted its list of passengers to the U.S. government for security screening.” TSA Secure Flight program has real-time watch list matching that is supposed to “identify known and suspected terrorists” as well as “prevent individuals on the No Fly List from boarding an aircraft.” When Tsarnaev returned in July 2012, another alert was generated. “But because the FBI had closed its investigation into Tsarnaev a year earlier, there was no reason to be suspicious of his travels to Russia.”

This then led to a discussion about if there will be a lower threshold for terrorism watchlists. Privacy groups have protested the massive DHS database of secret watchlists in the past. The list of potential suspicious behaviors, marking people as potential terrorists, still continued to grow.

Then it was revealed by the Associated Press that “Russian authorities secretly recorded a telephone conversation in 2011 in which one of the Boston bombing suspects had a conversation with his mother of a radical nature.” He “vaguely discussed” jihad. “In another conversation, the mother of now-dead bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was recorded talking to someone in southern Russia who is under FBI investigation in an unrelated case.”

We’ve already sacrificed so much privacy in the name of security, so did Intelligence drop the ball? Could the coming tsunami of more surveillance and less constitutionally-protected rights boil down to spelling errors? Shouldn’t this issue of knowing about him, but letting Tsarnaev slip through the cracks, be investigated before we ramp up surveillance and rip up rights? Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland said, “It’s way too soon to criticize or to start making political arguments or who failed or whatever. Later on, these agencies will be judged.” But investigating later on will not be soon enough to stop even more privacy erosions.

New York already has the “all-seeing Big Brother” Domain Awareness System, a joint NYPD-Microsoft project. As an aside, Microsoft also provides funds to fusion centers. The Domain Awareness System, which can pull up all surveillance cameras within 500 feet of reported suspicious activity, as well as tap into license plate readers and other ‘public data,’ is coming to all 34,000 NYPD cops, squad cars and mobile devices. Yet NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wants more surveillance cameras. He dismissed “critics who argue that increased cameras threaten privacy rights, giving governments the ability to monitor people in public spaces.” Kelly said, “I think the privacy issue has really been taken off the table.” In fact, Kelly added, “The people who complain about it, I would say, are a relatively small number of folks, because the genie is out of the bottle. People realize that everywhere you go now, your picture is taken.”

After the surviving attacker told the FBI that New York City Times Square was next on their list of targets, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said more cameras aren’t going to be enough. Increased surveillance in the name of security will only work if we toss out how we interpret our constitutionally protected rights. Bloomberg stated, “The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.