David Ignatius: The limits of surveillance

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: May 5, 2013
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America's top intelligence official said Thursday there isn't any evidence so far that the Boston Marathon bombers had help from foreign terrorist networks.

“At this point I haven't seen anything that raises a concern there was a bigger plot, but we're still investigating,” said James Clapper, director of national intelligence, in an interview. He was responding to a query about a recent newspaper story citing two Russian militants as possible accomplices.

Clapper's comments are another sign that the bombings, allegedly by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were probably a homegrown operation, perhaps closer to the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., than to an al-Qaida plot.

“They may have acted alone, but we need to wait until the investigation … (is) completed before we draw that conclusion,” Clapper said. “It gets into how people radicalize. … It has to do with personal grievances, and how much they are fed by jihadist Web pages.”

With such domestic plots, Clapper said, there are sharp limits on what the 17 intelligence agencies that report to him can do to collect information. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, was an American citizen, while Tamerlan's residential status made him what's known as a “U.S. person,” giving both of them protection from surveillance by the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

“There are restrictions on how intrusive we can be in monitoring U.S. citizens,” Clapper said. He cautioned that more aggressive efforts to connect the dots could create serious civil liberty issues, and he asked pointedly: “Does the public want us to be more intrusive in monitoring their Internet activity, listening in to their cellphone calls, monitoring their travel overseas? Do you want us to do this to you?”

Critics have argued that the FBI and other agencies botched the investigation of the Tsarnaevs. They note that the CIA was alerted by Russian intelligence in 2011 of concerns about Tamerlan, prompting an FBI interview of him that year. He was still able to travel to Russia in January 2012 and back to America that July without further queries.

But Clapper said the intelligence community was properly following rules for entering and using names on the TIDE database of terrorist identities that's maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He said the FBI interview of Tamerlan didn't produce enough corroborating evidence of terrorist links to prompt his inclusion on a no-fly or special screening list, and that under TIDE's rules, the name was dropped from the roster.

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