The tip, like a struck pinball, ricocheted around the vast U.S. counterterrorism system for 16 months. It pinged against agencies including the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. It generated entries on databases with such abbreviations as TIDE, TSDB and TECS.
Then, at the worst moment, the blinking lights went dark. The last time Tsarnaev surfaced as even a blip on U.S. screens was when he returned from Russia this past July. That was before he began assembling an online library of jihadist videos, before his trip to a fireworks shop in New Hampshire for gunpowder, before he and his brother, Dzhokhar, made their way toward the crowded Boston Marathon finish line with bulging backpacks.
It has been more than a decade since the United States began building its massive counterterrorism infrastructure, an apparatus that has been reconfigured several times in recent years after a series of near-miss attacks.
The strike in Boston marked the first time that a terrorist bomb plot slipped past those elaborate defenses and ended in casualties in the United States. Whether that outcome represents an intelligence failure is already the focus of a multi-agency review as well as a heated political debate.
The details that have emerged so far suggest there are still institutional gaps that could be fixed to bolster the nation’s counterterrorism system. But the bombings also exposed a less-reassuring reality: Even when defenses function as designed, they can be undermined by factors beyond their control.
In Boston, some of those factors were as fundamental and elusive as timing and luck.
“When this happens, there’s sort of an automatic response to find a linkage to failure,” said Andrew Liepman, who served as deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center until last year. It’s perfectly reasonable to look into whether there were breakdowns, Liepman said. “But that massive counterterrorism infrastructure works amazingly well to protect the country. We need to get used to the idea that it isn’t foolproof.”
In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the obstacles for U.S. authorities ranged from a misspelling on an airplane boarding pass to the apparent refusal of Russian authorities to go beyond their initial tip. Ultimately, however, perhaps the best chance to detect and disrupt the plot fell into a six-month span on the calendar, the near-empty space between when the FBI stopped watching Tsarnaev and when he is alleged to have begun laying the groundwork for the Boston plot.
President Obama said last week that the FBI and other agencies had made no missteps “based on what I’ve seen so far.” He pledged a review to determine whether those agencies could have done anything differently, but he warned that vulnerabilities will persist.