What Boston bombers manhunt revealed about the FBI

April 23, 2013

In the end, it was a high-tech gadget that allowed the FBI to identify the first Boston bomber in the video, the man agents called “Black Hat.”

This gadget — and the story of how the name of one bomber ended up in an FBI database — has revealed a great deal about the inner workings of the bureau, as well as its relations with an extensive network of countries in the pursuit of terrorism suspects. A wide variety of information is now exchanged internationally.

The gadget was used about 1 a.m. on Friday (April 19), eight hours after the FBI released photos and video of the bombing suspects – images of two men with backpacks strolling through the crowd at the Boston Marathon. One was wearing a black hat; the other a white hat turned backward.

It was three days after the two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon — and the FBI still did not know the identities of the two suspects.

Then, in the Boston suburb of Watertown, a furious firefight broke out between police and the two men. About 200 rounds of ammunition were exchanged, and explosive devices were thrown at the police by the suspects. Black Hat was felled by the bullets and rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The second man escaped in the Mercedes SUV the two had carjacked earlier.

“We put out the photos on Thursday at 5:15,” said an FBI official familiar with the sequence of events. “The shootout was a few hours later. At this point, we still don’t know who they are. Only after the shootout did we know.”

At the hospital, an FBI agent readied the gadget. “Just as he arrived,” said the FBI official, “we used a device to take a ‘quick capture’ of his fingerprints.”

As the official explained, “We can send them remotely. The prints were sent to the FBI fingerprint facility in West Virginia, and we identified him for the first time.”

The man killed in that Friday firefight was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, of Chechen background, who had been brought to the United States from Kyrgyzstan by his parents, refugees from the turmoil in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. His younger brother, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, who was “White Hat,” was captured Friday evening as he hid, badly wounded, in a boat in Watertown. He is now in a Boston hospital, where FBI agents have begun interviewing him, and on Monday he was formally charged.

Once the FBI had Tamerlan’s name on Friday, they were able to find out important information. “Sometime during the night,” the FBI official said, “we were able to see he was in the database.”

Unknown to the FBI — until it could identify Tamerlan — was a 2011 request from the Russian authorities for information about him. “Once you ID him,” the official explained, “we would quickly get the one hit: the [Russian] request in 2011.”

The FBI, in a statement issued on Friday night, said “a foreign government” had asked the bureau for information about Tsarnaev. “The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010, as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.”

Russian foreign intelligence — the SVR, successor to the KGB — or its domestic counterpart, the FSB, clearly suspected Tamerlan might be linked to Chechen terrorists waging guerrilla attacks against Moscow.

This request from the Russians was not unusual, the FBI man explained. “It is very routine,” he said, “for all countries — as many as 200 that we interact with ‑ to ask them to assist our country, and at same time those countries often ask us for assistance. It’s a normal part of international law enforcement today — and indispensable. Seventy-five or 80 percent of our cases have an international aspect to the investigation that may require something from another country. It could be telephone toll records, or a request for interviewing a citizen.”

The FBI interviewed several family members in response to Moscow’s request.  Agents also interviewed Tamerlan’s parents, who were then living in the United States.

“Ultimately, we met with him [Tamerlan Tsarnaev],” the agent said. “We simply didn’t develop anything derogatory. We sent that back to them [the Russians] and said if you develop any new information, we can look at it again. Otherwise under law, because he was a U.S. person, we could not go further. He was a permanent resident with a green card.”

The FBI had responded to the Russian request in the summer of 2011. Then, last year, Tamerlan traveled abroad for six months. U.S. intelligence is now particularly interested in knowing whether he met with any terrorist groups during that time, or received any training. They are hoping his younger brother can provide some answers to those questions.

Once the request came in from Russia, an FBI official said, “we began an ‘assessment,’ as we call it. We checked databases, whether he ever came into our radar for any reason. He had not. We checked his possible visits to extremist websites, all negative.”

Unless he had managed to conceal all evidence of extremist views, something must have changed inside the mind of Tamerlan Tsarnaev between 2011 and last Monday at 2:50 p.m — when chaos and death rained down on a beautiful sunny day in Boston.

All this had been caused by the two brothers — who the FBI were finally able to identify by a high-tech gadget from the prints on a dead man’s hand.

PHOTO (Top): A combination of the handout pictures of Tamerlan (left) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev released through the FBI website on April 18, 2013 showing the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

PHOTO (Insert A): Boston Marathon handout photo released during an FBI news conference in Boston, April 18, 2013. REUTERS/FBI/Handout

PHOTO (Insert B): FBI headquarters in Washington. WIKICOMMONS



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I must have missed the part where the article delivers the promised information about what the Tamerlan Tsarnaev case revealed about the FBI and its inner workings.

One question we can ask is whether it was a good idea to release the surveillance video of the Tsarnaev brothers at Copley Square. Information that there was some sort of video was leaked, probably by political people who wanted to generate favorable media coverage about the investigation. After that, and after what is reported to be disagreement within the investigating team, the surveillance video was released.

People say that the Tsarnaev brothers were caught because the surveillance video was released. But look at how that happened. The brothers freaked and went on a crime spree after their pictures were published, shooting two policemen (one to death, one to within a half-inch of his life) and then wreaking havoc in the Boston suburb of Watertown.

If the photographs were never published, the brothers would not have known that they had been surveilled. The surveillance photos of Dzhokhar would have been run through facial recognition algorithms to compare them to photos from various databases, including the Massachusetts DMV database, which contained his driver’s license photo. His name would then have been run through the FBI database, which would have generated a hit on his brother, who has the same unusual last name and who had this interesting report from Russia. This probably would not have taken a long time; the limitation is computer server availability. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs would have stayed put, playing it cool, possibly thinking about the next job, but not until the heat (and heightened vigilance) died down. Soon they would have been captured far less dramatically. Wouldn’t that have been a better result?

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Coupled with the Elvis the Ricin guy…they aren’t the fastest boat in the water

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Maybe they don’t catch them as fast if the video isn’t release and they struck again…did you think about that possibility?

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

The article leaves out a question: if these brothers were interviewed and investigated by FBI in Boston as recently as 2011, why didn’t FBI recognize them from their photos taken at the scene as soon as the investigators zeroed in on such photos? Even though its 2011 investigations on them turned up nothing, does it not keep any file photo of them that could have been checked with facial-recognition softwares? Recognizing them earlier before releasing their photos to the public might have allowed the police to make arrests with some elements of initiative and surprise and prevented the tragic death of a policeman on last Thursday night and the city-wide lockdown and more police injuries on last Friday.

Posted by CC88 | Report as abusive

Goodness, I hope to shout. The FBI better have fingerprint scanning and matching technology, it’s been in use for years, ever been to a Universal Studios Theme Park?

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive


1. Your understanding of facial recognition technology is wrong. Read Professor Ross Anderson’s industry bible, “Security Engineering”.

2. The Tsarnaevs had other pressure-cooker bombs they were busy preparing. It’s far-fetched to think they would just have “stayed put, playing it cool”. They might have done that for a few days, but as soon as the publicity started dying down, they would have felt that they needed to pull another big one… The publicity is like cocaine for these people.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

@David Wise: Just as important as the databases, software, gadgets etc.: the administrative procedures that ensure that your target matches are going to be in your database. Fingerprint matching is NOT an exact science (see the book by Ross Anderson that I have recommended to Bob9999: read the chapter on “Biometrics”.)

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

The FBI had to release those pictures. Too many vigalante groups were already in the act of identifying suspects. Between that and the danger of more attacks and the sheer number of witnesses who could help identify them quicker, it was the best option.
If the FBI had definite suspects or already had ID matches, then not letting them know they were identified would have been an option, but since they could have easily not been from Boston at all or still in the city, the haystack this needle was in could have been the entire northeast expanding to the whole country. The FBI needed something the spread farther and faster than roadblocks to hem them in and the media was it.

Posted by mikemm | Report as abusive

This is a pathetic article! Wow fingerprint device? Awesome. What we really learned about the FBI…A bloody wounded teen trapped in a 25block square could not be tracked down by the FBI with all of their Magical Power. One man with one dog should have had this finished in 2 hours maximum. Thanks for the lame read…gunna censor me now like all the times before? Pathetic

Posted by Reuterscensrshp | Report as abusive

What I learned from all this is that the FBI can’t find one guy who’s bleeding out in a 25 block area. Ever heard of a dog? Blood hound? Hello. right we need to roll back rights…gun rights, internet rights, and more cameras!

Posted by Reuterscensrshp | Report as abusive

Nice to find out that David Wise is still around and still writing. I’m reading The Politics of Lying right now. Fascinating and still as relevant as ever.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Nice to find out that David Wise is still around and still writing. I’m reading The Politics of Lying right now. Fascinating and still as relevant as ever.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Other then the bruins cap, the face of the guy on the above left doesn’t look all that similar to the from-above shot of “black hat” in the lower photo. And the guy dead in the Watertown driveway (on YouTube) has auburn hair and black hat looks like black or dark brown hair. Upper black hat wears sunglasses while the guy below doesn’t seem to have them.

If this surviving kid ever comes to trial how will they ever impanel a jury if there aren’t people who are sceptical of everything they have heard or read about this case? Jurors are supposed to be people who have no preconceived notions. I have too strongly held suspicions against the prosecution and I probably wouldn’t be picked either.

No organization is going to be 100% reliable in preventing everything it is empowered to prevent. I doubt the Iraqis or Afghans have the resources to even try to bring mass murder to justice. They have to live with it as the price of our definition of freedom. We didn’t like their former definition of security because we claimed it put too many innocents behind bars and the government engaged in cruel and inhuman punishment. We claim they risk becoming “medieval” or to say, a kind of simpliciter justice and too eager to pander to prejudice and cruelty. I think they do too. It is presumed they will sooner or later get over it.

Now we seem to have to live with the random acts of violence they endure and we must aslo have to accept that as the cost of freedom and a state where “s–t happens”. Or else we must empower super security apparatus to ensure our continued monitoring and good behavior. Doesn’t that sound like what we were supposed to be freeing them form?

Why would that not be so? Is it because we still presume this country is wealthier and more stable and can afford the ultra refined form of domestic surveillance with exquisite concern for human rights but the up and coming regimes must deal with amateur hour and cut rate services?

The legal process surrounding the last ten years has been less than uppermost in anyone’s minds except, perhaps, Ramsey Clark at SH’s trial. He didn’t like or admire the process. I tend to think UN support was somehow bribed or stronarmed out of them. Some fears are lucrative to believe in and a lot more exciting. “Terrorism” is the global jackpot and I’m not so naive to think “sweet dreams” aren’t also made of it. It is also an eternal crime in that only an utter alteration and conversion of the entire human animal could ever accomplish its extinction as a crime and plague of mankind.

It’s the legal process that is the only thing that distinguishes life in Iraq or Afghanistan from life here and this system must serve as some type of edifying educator for the rest. It’s absolutely necessary or the whole event and resolution risks being garbage in, garbage out. And I am too used to thinking of it as garbage and have a more tenuous grasp of it glory. Glory tarnishes and most is just forgotten.

Or is that just being far too discriminating for life? I want to learn something form this event that makes me think the country is worth the risk of living in it. Frankly, I’m willing to live with some considerable risk just short of actually making any of these peak events actually happen.

Can you make trouble with “bad thoughts”? Many repressive regimes would claim yes, if they were spoken or written. North Koreans get punished for bad thoughts.
But we claim that freedom here. I am obliged to accept a definition of “radical”: a word I never see described in details but only as an idea. So I will cling and embroider and polish my doubts until I become much better educated and don’t feel fooled again.

You always have to know all the doubts to ever know all the faith.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

At this point with so much new information that has come to light a week after it was written this article really out to bounce into the archive bin.

Posted by AnselHazen | Report as abusive