There’s been considerable speculation about how the government handled Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s return from Russia. Before Tsarnaev’s return, both the FBI and the CIA had suggested that Tsarnaev belonged in the government’s classified terrorist database, and according to some reports an alert for Tsarnaev was entered into the DHS border system. Yet according to Secretary Napolitano these systems “pinged” when Tsarnaev left the country but not when he returned six months later.
The lack of a ping upon Tsarnaev’s return to the United States suggests a gap in US border defenses. In general, the outbound “ping” is not a big deal. It tells us that a terror risk is leaving the country, more a matter for celebration than suspicion. We don’t usually inspect or question departing passengers, so it would have taken a pretty unusual notice to earn Tsarnaev much scrutiny on departure.
But his return should have been different. He was entering the country, and at the border the government’s authority to stop travelers, to question them, and to search their luggage, including their electronics, is at its zenith. If we have any doubts about the intentions of a returning green-card holder, this is the time and place to question him.
When the FBI paid a visit to Tsarnaev’s home, Tsarnaev had complete control of the interview. He could throw the agents out whenever he chose, and he could certainly refuse to let them look at his computer and phone. At the border, though, he can’t. We could have learned a lot more about Tsarnaev’s journey into radicalism there. For example, the FBI’s preliminary investigation included checking to see if Tsarnaev had posted on certain radical Islamist websites, but it couldn’t know what he might have downloaded, and it’s not clear that the FBI had any way to tell what he might have posted under a pseudonym. Again, the government had its best chance of discovering those things by conducting a secondary inspection of Tsarnaev when he returned from Russia.So why didn’t it? [more]