A skirmish between the FBI and the Boston police erupted into public view after the bureau sought to rebut a claim that police weren’t aware of a federal probe of the alleged mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombing.
At a congressional hearing yesterday in Washington, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said officers who served on Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, weren’t made aware of the 2011 FBI investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, or of the suspect’s six-month trip to Russia last year.
In response, the FBI issued a statement saying police members of the JTTF had complete access to all information compiled by the agency related to potential terrorist suspects through Guardian, software that manages the database.
“Boston JTTF members, including representatives from the Boston Police Department (BPD), were provided instruction on using Guardian, including suggestions on methods for proactively reviewing and establishing customized searches, which would allow them to be fully informed of all JTTF activity that may affect Boston,” the FBI said yesterday in a statement.
The unusual back-and-forth between police and the FBI comes a week after the Boston Police Department upstaged U.S. law enforcement by announcing FBI arrests of three friends of the alleged bomber.
Lack of coordination between BPD and federal law enforcement was evident May 1 when the BPD’s public information office wrote on Twitter just after 11 a.m. that three additional suspects had been taken into custody.
Camera crews and reporters flocked to Boston’s federal courthouse. The office of Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz found itself besieged for several hours by reporters seeking the identities of the three men. The complaints against the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth classmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were still under seal when the BPD statement went out.
The April 15 attack near the marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street killed three people and injured more than 200 others. Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a shootout with police on April 19. His brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is in federal custody facing capital charges.
Massachusetts law enforcement and the Boston field office of the FBI have a decades-long history of distrust and resentment. The dissonance stems from the handling of James “Whitey” Bulger, once the reputed head of an Irish-American organized crime group in New England, according to Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.
Bulger, 83, was allegedly free to commit murders and sell drugs from the 1970s to the 1990s because, unbeknownst to Massachusetts state and local police, he was an FBI informant, Levin said.
“Tension between the FBI and the Boston police has a long history in this city,” he said. “The FBI was willing to tolerate criminal behavior for the sake of getting information, and all the police wanted to do was make an arrest.”
Bulger became a fugitive in 1994 after FBI Agent John Connolly, who had grown up with him in the projects of South Boston, tipped him to a pending arrest. Bulger spent 16 years on the run before being arrested in California in 2011.
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks erased much of the bad blood as state and federal law enforcement collaborated to combat terrorism, said Paul Evans, Boston Police Commissioner from 1994 to 2003.
“There used to be an old saying among the rank and file: ‘The FBI wouldn’t tell you if your coat was on fire,’” Evans said. “A lot of that distrust evaporated after Sept. 11.”
Bulger faces trial next month for 19 murders. Last week he lost his bid to claim that he had an immunity deal with the U.S. Justice Department before he went underground.
Bulger said he won immunity from former U.S. prosecutor Jeremiah O’Sullivan, who led organized-crime prosecutions decades ago. O’Sullivan said during a congressional investigation that he once excluded Bulger as a defendant in an organized crime prosecution charging his gang with fixing horse races.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty and denies he was ever an informant.
Prosecutors argued Bulger’s immunity claim was a fantasy. No Justice Department official can confer what amounts to “a license to kill,” the government said in court filings.
Connolly was convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice in 2002, and later found guilty in a Bulger-related murder.
In testimony yesterday before the House Homeland Security Committee in Washington, Boston Police Commissioner Davis was asked by Mike McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, about gaps in the country’s antiterrorism procedures.
The Russian government flagged the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency in 2011. A three-month FBI probe into Tsarnaev uncovered no derogatory information, according to the bureau.
Six months after the FBI review, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia. While the trip registered in a Homeland Security Department database, it didn’t set off any red flags in the system, McCaul said.
“What remains unanswered is whether this information was shared between federal agencies and state and local officials,” McCaul said.
Davis testified that Boston Police officials who served on the JTTF weren’t aware of the FBI’s investigation into the elder Tsarnaev brother. They also didn’t know of his travels out of the country, Davis said, adding that it was information he would have liked to have had.
Davis said during a break in the hearing that the four police department representatives on the JTTF had access to the databases listing Tsarnaev. Those databases included the so-called TIDE, or Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, and the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, a database maintained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Their names were in databases and these were databases we had access to, but nobody indicated that there were high-level government sources that were moving information back and forth,” Davis said.
The case is U.S. v. Tsarnaev, 13-mj-02106, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).