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History > 2013 > USA > FBI (I)



Deadly End to F.B.I. Queries on Tsarnaev

and a Triple Killing


May 22, 2013
The New York Times


One lingering mystery in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings is whether the dead suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, played a role in the unsolved murders of three men, one of them his best friend, in a Boston suburb in 2011.

That question deepened early Wednesday when a man in Orlando, Fla., who was being interviewed by at least one F.B.I. agent and other investigators, implicated himself and Mr. Tsarnaev in those murders, and then was fatally shot after he apparently tried to assault the agent, two senior law enforcement officials said.

The man, Ibragim Todashev, had been speaking for two hours in his apartment to officials from the Massachusetts State Police and the F.B.I. about Mr. Tsarnaev and the Sept. 11, 2011, murders in Waltham, Mass., when he suddenly grabbed an object and tried to attack the agent, one official said.

“He exploded and leapt at him,” said the official, who said the F.B.I. agent sustained minor injuries that required stitches.

A second law enforcement official said the shooting occurred after Mr. Todashev had admitted his role in the killings and had also implicated Mr. Tsarnaev. The official said he had begun writing out a statement when he asked to take a break.

“They got him to confess to the homicides, and they say, ‘Let’s write it down,’ and he starts writing it down. He goes to get a cigarette or something and then he goes off the deep end,” the second official said. “I don’t know what triggered him, and he goes after the agent.”

The official said Mr. Todashev had something in his hand, “a knife or a pipe or something.”

It was not certain who, or how many officers, had fired on Mr. Todashev. Nor was it clear why, with at least three law enforcement officials in the room, deadly force was used on someone without a firearm in his hands. Asked, one law enforcement official said: “If somebody jumps on you and you have a gun, and you don’t do something, the gun will quickly come into play.”

Mr. Todashev’s alleged oral admission and his subsequent death marked a bizarre twist in investigators’ attempts to determine whether Mr. Tsarnaev participated in the gruesome killings in Waltham on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The throats of his close friend, Brendan Mess, and two other men were slashed and marijuana was spread over their bodies.

The second official described what in effect appears to be a drug robbery.

“So Tamerlan says they have dope, they rip them off. Tamerlan says, ‘They can identify me, so let’s kill them.’ And they kill them,” the official said.

If Mr. Tsarnaev was involved, then the murders may shed light on the crucial question of what may have turned him violent and unstable, and whether that was before he traveled to his homeland in the North Caucasus region of Russia last year.

The recent focus on Mr. Tsarnaev’s possible involvement in the Waltham murders has also raised questions about whether authorities in Massachusetts missed an opportunity to thwart the marathon bombings by not adequately pursuing Mr. Tsarnaev as a murder suspect.

There was no indication on Wednesday why Mr. Todashev — who, like the Tsarnaevs, was an ethnic Chechen — would have implicated himself and Mr. Tsarnaev in the murders. Investigators, who are seeking to determine how Mr. Tsarnaev made money, have been looking into whether Mr. Todashev and Mr. Tsarnaev were drug dealers, one of the law enforcement officials said.

Mr. Todashev had not signed a written statement about the Waltham murders before he was fatally shot. “He had only said it orally but had not signed anything,” said the first official. “But that was where it appeared to be heading.”

The shooting occurred in a sprawling condominium complex in Orlando, less than a mile from an entrance to Universal Studios, where many of the residents work. On Wednesday, several streets in the complex were blocked off by federal and local law enforcement officials.

The law enforcement official said that the authorities had spoken to Mr. Todashev at least twice since the April 15 bombings in Boston, which killed three people and injured more than 200.

Mr. Todashev and Mr. Tsarnaev saw each other regularly in Boston before Mr. Todashev moved to Florida about two years ago, though they were not particularly close, Mr. Tsarnaev’s mother said in an interview in Russia.

“Tamerlan said he was a good guy, he said he was a boxer or some other kind of athlete,” Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said by telephone from Dagestan. She said she had broken down when she heard the news on Wednesday.

“Now another boy has left this life,” she said. “Why are they killing these children without any trial or investigation?”

The triple murder stunned the community of Waltham, 10 miles west of Boston. The police were called to Mr. Mess’s home on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2011, after witnesses said a woman had rushed out screaming about dead bodies covered in marijuana, and blood everywhere.

Mr. Mess was strong and would have been difficult to subdue, and Mr. Tsarnaev was one of the most accomplished amateur boxers in Boston, a heavyweight. Some in nearby Cambridge who knew Mr. Mess and the Tsarnaevs also grew suspicious of Mr. Tsarnaev when he did not show up for Mr. Mess’s funeral, despite being a close friend.


Michael S. Schmidt reported from Waltham, Mass.,

and William K. Rashbaum

and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from New York.

Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry from Moscow,

Serge F. Kovaleski and Deborah Sontag from New York,

Jeffrey Billman from Orlando, Fla.,

and Scott Shane from Washington.

Kitty Bennett contributed research from St. Petersburg, Fla.

    Deadly End to F.B.I. Queries on Tsarnaev and a Triple Killing, NYT, 22.5.2013,






Bombings Make a Bitter Bookend

for F.B.I.’s Director


May 9, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III was awakened at home close to 1:30 a.m. on April 19 as one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing was in cardiac arrest and the other was on the run.

By 3 a.m., after an F.B.I. agent had used a fingerprint scanner on the dying suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in a hospital emergency room to learn his identity, Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I. director, had arrived in a suit and tie at his agency’s headquarters in downtown Washington.

His agents gave him the bad news: two years earlier, the F.B.I. had interviewed, and closed its file on, Mr. Tsarnaev. Mr. Mueller took it in without showing emotion, his aides said. He turned to a deputy and ordered the release of the information — knowing it would call into question whether the F.B.I. failed to head off one of the most spectacular attacks on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, Mr. Mueller’s 12-year tenure under two presidents is facing scrutiny, months from his longtime plans to step down in September, as hearings begin on Capitol Hill into what happened in Boston and why.

Although his privileged roots and sometimes wooden personality have not made him a beloved figure in the F.B.I.’s beer-and-brats culture, he has always had supporters in both parties in Congress. Now, instead of coasting into retirement, Mr. Mueller will spend his final months answering tough questions about how the bombing suspects slipped away.

On Thursday, Boston’s police chief testified to the House Homeland Security Committee that the F.B.I. had not shared with the Boston police information it received in 2011 about Mr. Tsarnaev, or about the bureau’s subsequent inquiry, which found no evidence of ties to Muslim extremists. Although the information appeared to raise questions about whether Mr. Tsarnaev would commit terrorist acts in Russia, Edward Davis, the police commissioner, said that had his department learned about the tip, “we would certainly look at the individual.” He could not say whether he would have come to a different conclusion.

For Mr. Mueller, who took over the F.B.I. one week before the Sept. 11 attacks, the hearings stand as an unwelcome bookend to a long law enforcement career.

“If an attack of this scale happens toward the end of your tenure and there is evidence that the F.B.I. had its hands on the people years ago and missed them, that is what people will remember,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton historian and author of a book on the politics of national security.

Lee H. Hamilton, the co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, was blunt. “He can’t avoid it,” he said. “It happened, so it’s part of his legacy.” Mr. Mueller declined to be interviewed for this article.

His defenders, including President Obama, praise the bureau for its fast work in identifying Mr. Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, ethnic Chechen immigrants who the F.B.I. believes learned to make explosives from an Al Qaeda-affiliated online magazine. For days after the bombings, the F.B.I. flew its planes, including a Gulfstream 5 jet, between Boston and Washington, ferrying evidence gathered at the scene to the F.B.I.’s crime laboratories for DNA analysis in a frantic effort to learn who the bombers were.

The break came with the fingerprint scan — technology ordinarily used to identify enemy fighters in Afghanistan — that set in motion Mr. Mueller’s decision to make public the F.B.I.’s previous contact with Mr. Tsarnaev. That the agency had crossed the suspect’s path did not come entirely as a surprise, aides said. Inside the bureau, where F.B.I. agents under orders since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to check out the smallest terrorist tip have built databases of millions of names, the view was that it was only a matter of time before the agency would be blamed for the next attack. From the agents’ perspective, the F.B.I. is vigilant, not incompetent. “In some ways, they’re a victim of their own success,” said Kenneth Wainstein, a former chief of staff to Mr. Mueller and former general counsel at the F.B.I.

Whether blame is deserved or not, by 10 a.m. on April 19, Mr. Mueller had made the short trip from the F.B.I.’s headquarters to the White House, where he briefed Mr. Obama in the Situation Room. Boston was on lockdown and an extensive manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was under way. Using what Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, described as a “very factual” tone, Mr. Mueller did not apologize to the president for the F.B.I.’s closing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s case.

“His view is that the F.B.I. has thousands upon thousands of leads that they investigate, and it’s the nature of the business that if you don’t find derogatory information about somebody in that investigation, it’s just not going to trigger a detention or a deportation,” Mr. Rhodes said. “It wasn’t defensive at all.”

But a few days later, when Mr. Mueller briefed House members behind closed doors, one lawmaker said he seemed uncharacteristically tense. “He was ill at ease, not his normal confidence,” said the congressman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the session was classified. “He wasn’t himself.”

Three days before the Boston bombings, Mr. Mueller, 68, delivered a rare and unusually personal speech at the University of Virginia, where he received his law degree 40 years ago.

“I love doing bank robberies, drug cases, homicides — as a prosecutor, that’s what I thought I was going to be overseeing when I got to the bureau,” he said. But, he said, Americans “expect us to prevent the next terrorist attack.”

Mr. Mueller’s words — which have since become, at minimum, awkward — also described his transformation of the F.B.I. He became director on Sept. 4, 2001; faced investigations into the failures to prevent the Sept. 11 plot; then set about changing the culture of the F.B.I. — 56 field offices, each fiercely protective of its turf — from a domestic crime-fighting agency into a counterterrorism operation.

“It was an enormously difficult challenge, and he went at it with great energy and skill,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Some agents bought into it, and others did not.”

Mr. Mueller expanded the bureau’s presence overseas, deployed agents to gather evidence on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and pressed for expanded surveillance powers. He nearly resigned over the George W. Bush administration’s electronic eavesdropping program, and instructed his agents not to participate in brutal interrogation techniques used by the C.I.A. But there is no evidence that he put his objections in writing or took them to the White House.

Mr. Mueller’s years at the F.B.I. — traditionally the proletarian competitor to the Ivy Leaguers at the C.I.A. — are the logical culmination of a long career spent fighting criminals, though not necessarily of his origins. Born into an affluent New York family, Mr. Mueller graduated from the elite St. Paul’s School in the same 1962 class as Secretary of State John Kerry, followed his father’s footsteps to Princeton, earned a master’s degree in international relations from New York University, then saw combat when he led a rifle platoon in Vietnam.

He went on to become United States attorney in both San Francisco and Boston, and supervised cases like the prosecution of the crime boss John J. Gotti and the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland when he ran the Justice Department’s criminal division under the first President George Bush. Friends say law enforcement had always drawn him in.

“He really hates the bad guys,” said William F. Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, who preceded Mr. Mueller as the United States attorney in Boston.

In recent years, friends say Mr. Mueller has grown increasingly concerned about the potential for other homegrown attacks like the one in Boston. Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary who ran the C.I.A. from 2009 to 2011 and who counts Mr. Mueller as a friend, said the two often talked of the changing nature of the terror threat.

“The one area that I think we were always concerned about was the Lone Wolf Syndrome,” Mr. Panetta said, using law enforcement jargon for criminals who act alone, “largely because the real challenge is, how do you locate these people? How do you get ahead of it?”

In his University of Virginia speech, Mr. Mueller said he measured success on how many attacks had occurred on American soil over the past 10 to 12 years. As he wrapped up his remarks, he offered to take questions, alluding to the skills he has developed in Washington through many a Congressional hearing, and more to come.

“I’ll either answer ’em,” he said, “or duck ’em.”

    Bombings Make a Bitter Bookend for F.B.I.’s Director, NYT, 9.5.2013,






U.S. Weighs Wider Wiretap Laws

to Cover Online Activity


May 7, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, resolving years of internal debate, is on the verge of backing a Federal Bureau of Investigation plan for a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services, according to officials familiar with the deliberations.

The F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, has argued that the bureau’s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects is “going dark” as communications technology evolves, and since 2010 has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies like Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. That proposal, however, bogged down amid concerns by other agencies, like the Commerce Department, about quashing Silicon Valley innovation.

While the F.B.I.’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders. The difference, officials say, means that start-ups with a small number of users would have fewer worries about wiretapping issues unless the companies became popular enough to come to the Justice Department’s attention.

Still, the plan is likely to set off a debate over the future of the Internet if the White House submits it to Congress, according to lawyers for technology companies and advocates of Internet privacy and freedom.

“I think the F.B.I.’s proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves,” said Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It would also mean that innovators who want to avoid new and expensive mandates will take their innovations abroad and develop them there, where there aren’t the same mandates.”

Andrew Weissmann, the general counsel of the F.B.I., said in a statement that the proposal was aimed only at preserving law enforcement officials’ longstanding ability to investigate suspected criminals, spies and terrorists subject to a court’s permission.

“This doesn’t create any new legal surveillance authority,” he said. “This always requires a court order. None of the ‘going dark’ solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications.”

A central element of the F.B.I.’s 2010 proposal was to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act — a 1994 law that already requires phone and network carriers to build interception capabilities into their systems — so that it would also cover Internet-based services that allow people to converse. But the bureau has now largely moved away from that one-size-fits-all mandate.

Instead, the new proposal focuses on strengthening wiretap orders issued by judges. Currently, such orders instruct recipients to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, leaving wiggle room for companies to say they tried but could not make the technology work. Under the new proposal, providers could be ordered to comply, and judges could impose fines if they did not. The shift in thinking toward the judicial fines was first reported by The Washington Post, and additional details were described to The New York Times by several officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Under the proposal, officials said, for a company to be eligible for the strictest deadlines and fines — starting at $25,000 a day — it must first have been put on notice that it needed surveillance capabilities, triggering a 30-day period to consult with the government on any technical problems.

Such notice could be the receipt of its first wiretap order or a warning from the attorney general that it might receive a surveillance request in the future, officials said, arguing that most small start-ups would never receive either.

Michael Sussman, a former Justice Department lawyer who advises communications providers, said that aspect of the plan appeared to be modeled on a British law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000.

Foreign-based communications services that do business in the United States would be subject to the same procedures, and would be required to have a point of contact on domestic soil who could be served with a wiretap order, officials said.

Albert Gidari Jr., who represents technology companies on law enforcement matters, criticized that proposed procedure. He argued that if the United States started imposing fines on foreign Internet firms, it would encourage other countries, some of which may be looking for political dissidents, to penalize American companies if they refused to turn over users’ information.

“We’ll look a lot more like China than America after this,” Mr. Gidari said.

The expanded fines would also apply to phone and network carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, which are separately subject to the 1994 wiretapping capacity law. The FBI has argued that such companies sometimes roll out system upgrades without making sure that their wiretap capabilities will keep working.

The 1994 law would be expanded to cover peer-to-peer voice-over-Internet protocol, or VoIP — calls between computers that do not connect to the regular phone network. Such services typically do not route data packets through any central hub, making them difficult to intercept.

The F.B.I. has abandoned a component of its original proposal that would have required companies that facilitate the encryption of users’ messages to always have a key to unscramble them if presented with a court order. Critics had charged that such a law would create back doors for hackers. The current proposal would allow services that fully encrypt messages between users to keep operating, officials said.

In November 2010, Mr. Mueller toured Silicon Valley and briefed executives on the proposal as it then existed, urging them not to lobby against it, but the firms have adopted a cautious stance. In February 2011, the F.B.I.’s top lawyer at the time testified about the “going dark” problem at a House hearing, emphasizing that there was no administration proposal yet. Still, several top lawmakers at the hearing expressed skepticism, raising fears about innovation and security.

    U.S. Weighs Wider Wiretap Laws to Cover Online Activity, NYT, 7.5.2013,




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