Federal officials are pushing back against the charge that the FBI dropped the ball when they cleared the elder of the two accused Boston bombing brothers of terror connections in October 2011.
A non-FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was placed on a terrorist watchlist when he first came the FBI's attention in the spring of 2011, after a tip from Russia that he might be involved in Islamic extremism, but was purged from the list after one year, because the FBI had cleared him.
"There's no reason to believe the FBI missed anything at that time," said one official. "The FBI did a pretty good investigation and he came up clean."
After receiving the Russian tip, the FBI conducted what they call a threat assessment — the lowest level of preliminary inquiry — interviewing Tsarnaev and his family and checking his internet usage and electronic communications for contact with terror groups.
Tsarnaev's name was also added to the Terrorism Identities Datamart Environment, a large database of known or suspected terrorists at home and abroad that is maintained by the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC).
Because the investigation had an international angle, Tsarnaev's name was also exported to the special screening database used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to check the names of international travelers. His name was flagged with a note that Customs should let the FBI agent in charge of the investigation know if Tsarnaev, a lawful permanent resident or green-card holder, left or entered the United States, according to the official.
When Tsarnaev left for Russia in January 2012, an electronic notification was sent to the FBI. But the bureau had closed its investigation in October 2011, having found no derogatory information, the official said. As a result, by the time he returned, in June 2012, the flag on his name had expired and the FBI was not notified of his return.
The official also disputed lawmakers' characterization that the bureau had received "multiple contacts" from the Russians, as Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and others charged Tuesday after a briefing for members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"If by 'multiple contacts' you mean they [the Russians] sent them [the FBI] the same information multiple times after they [the bureau] asked for more details, then yes, there were multiple contacts," said the official.
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