Lindsey Graham Is Wrong: The FBI Didn’t Drop the Ball on Tamerlan Tsarnaev

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April 23 2013 2:00 PM

Lindsey Graham Is Wrong: The FBI Didn’t Drop the Ball on Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Lindsey Graham
Sen. Lindsey Graham has dropped the ball in claiming the FBI has dropped the ball on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Now that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are dead and captured, respectively, some in the media and government have turned from hand-wringing to finger-pointing. As it turns out, the FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, after receiving a tip from Russian intelligence about his possible infatuation with radical Islam. But their interest in Tsarnaev didn't extend beyond that interview, and critics are asking why the feds lost track of Tsarnaev and failed to detect his radical inclinations.

"The ball was dropped in one of two ways—the FBI missed a lot of things, [or] there's one potential answer [that] our laws do not allow to follow up in a sound solid way. There was a lot to be learned from this guy," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, upset that Tsarnaev's six-month visit to Russia last year failed to pique the FBI's interest. "It's people like this that you don't want to let out of your sight, and this was a mistake. I don't know if our laws are insufficient or the FBI failed, but we're at war with radical Islamists and we need to up our game."

I understand why Graham is angry, but I don't think his criticism here is relevant. While second-guessing authority is a great American pastime, it's unfair to use hindsight to evaluate the FBI's performance in 2011. And there's no good reason to think that the FBI fell down on the job.

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The feds interviewed Tsarnaev after Russia mentioned that he had recently become strongly involved with radical Islam. But he didn't seem particularly suspicious, and, as a New York Times story reported, "When they asked the Russians for more information to justify a search of Mr. Tsarnaev’s phone records, travel history and other more restricted information, they received no reply, a senior United States official said." Thanks for nothing, Russia.

Without that additional data, the feds didn't have grounds to justify further investigation. Tsarnaev held extremist views? So do a lot of people, most of whom never become terrorists. He may have visited extremist websites? "There are hundreds of thousands of young adults in this country that visit extremist Islamic websites," former FBI agent Brad Garrett told ABC. You can't track all of them. There is finite manpower at the FBI, and agents have to prioritize their casework. In 2011, Tsarnaev was a decorated athlete with a fully Americanized younger brother. There was no particular reason to think that he had mass murder in his future.

I do not know why the feds failed to flag Tsarnaev's trip to Russia. But a trip to Russia is not in itself suspicious, especially when you have family there. And though it has been reported that Tsarnaev visited Dagestan and Chechnya, it is unlikely that he advertised that fact. I’m sure FBI officials are upset that they didn’t see anything suspicious in Tsarnaev’s travels. Still, looking back, it’s hard to say that the feds did anything wrong here.

The FBI does not have magic powers. It cannot see into the future, and it is unfair to criticize it for failing to do so. And it’s just as wrong to say that the proper response to the Boston bombings is an expansion of the groundless surveillance tactics that would gladly sacrifice the rights of 1,000 innocent people to catch one guilty man. What Graham and his cohort are suggesting, essentially, is that the FBI should constantly track everyone whose name comes up during the course of an investigation, regardless of whether there is any clear reason to do so. These police-state tactics are unrealistic and un-American—and, to my mind, they have the potential to be just as frightening as anything the Tsarnaevs have done.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.