Boston Bombing Suspect Avoided CIA, FBI Because His Last Name Was Misspelled In DHS Database

from the intelligence-screwups-also-include-typos dept

Everyone makes mistakes. There’s hardly anyone out there who can claim a misspelling-free existence. And government employees — even highly-trained analysts and agents charged with protecting national security — are no different. Mistakes will be made. Let he who is without sin be the pedantic ass casting stones in the comments below, etc.

The problem is that when mistakes are made on highly-sensitive forms, the damage is almost irreparable. As we’ve covered extensively, an agent’s failure to fill out paperwork properly put a non-terrorist on the government’s “no fly” list for over a decade. To add insult to cock-up, the government spent most of that time trying to bury the challenge with layers and layers of “national security” obfuscation. Confirming or denying anything about terrorist watchlists would somehow lead to terrorists gaming the system.

Speaking of terrorist attacks, the Tsarnaev brothers somehow managed to elude those specifically tasked with preventing events like the Boston Marathon bombing. The same lack of inter-agency communication that allowed some 9/11 terrorists to return to the US unnoticed was at play in the recent attack. Unbelievably, these agencies have used both attacks as justification for leaving their surveillance powers intact, arguing that curtailing these programs will somehow prevent them from stopping the next 9/11 or Boston bombing — despite having been unable to prevent either of those.

But these “terrorist watchlists” the government likes to keep are sacrosanct, even if they’re populated by people who shouldn’t be on there and missing people who should be, thanks to human error.

On January 21, 2012 Tsarnaev traveled to JFK airport in New York to board an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Though an alert was triggered, Tsarnaev was not pulled out for a secondary search or interview. According to sources familiar with the report, there were almost 100 other names on the “Hot List” of individuals traveling through Customs at JFK that day, and Tsarnaev was not considered high priority.

Tsarnaev flew to Moscow, and then to Dagestan, where he stayed for six months and received jihad training, according to U.S. authorities.

On July 17, 2012, Tsarnaev flew back to the United States, landing at JFK. TECS notes remain in effect for one year. The initial TECS note had expired. The second, more urgent TECS note filed in October 2011 that said he might be armed and dangerous had not.

But no alert was triggered when Tsarnaev passed through Customs at JFK, because of the misspelling of his name on the second TECS note. The difference of one letter – Tsarnayev instead of Tsarnaev – meant that he was not detained or questioned despite the warning in his file, according to sources familiar with the report.

It’s the sort of error anyone can make. But it had serious repercussions. In Tsarnaev’s case, this error helped contribute to an attack on American citizens.

The government aggressively battles anyone who questions their placement on terrorist watchlists, ignoring the fact that it still employs human beings and that those people — being human — will occasionally make mistakes. No one’s asserting any sort of maliciousness on the government’s behalf in Ibrahim’s case, but no one should to be willing to completely excuse its behavior in Tsarnaev’s, either.

Errors will be made, but it’s of utmost importance to correct them. The government needs to stop pretending its watchlists are infallible. It’s not as though this is a recent development and possibly the first time these agencies have been made aware of the lists’ shortcomings. Back in 2009, the Office of the Inspector General had this to say about the FBI’s list.

We found that the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion, and did not update or remove watchlist records as required…. We believe that the FBI’s failure to consistently nominate subjects of international and domestic terrorism investigations to the terrorist watchlist could pose a risk to national security.

The FBI failed in both directions, failing to add suspected terrorists to the list fast enough and being pretty much unresponsive when it came to removing those not deemed a threat. Add this to the fact that clerical errors will always be present in a certain percentage of records and you have a list whose veracity is highly questionable. But the government doesn’t see it that way, and that’s the problem.

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Comments on “Boston Bombing Suspect Avoided CIA, FBI Because His Last Name Was Misspelled In DHS Database”

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art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

make no mistake, kamper, the feebs/etc have a LONG his story of -oops- ‘mistakenly’ (winkwinknudgenudge*) filing reports/etc under a PURPOSEFULLY misspelled name such that they can ‘honestly’ claim that, ‘no, senator, we did not have ANY files on a Rev Martin Luther King, Jr.’
(of course, not mentioning they have file cabinets full of dirt on a ‘Rev Martin Luter King, Jr.’…)
now, i COMPLETELY understand: you’ve got your best crooked, puzzled, lapdog face on, screwing it up trying to get your little rodent-canine hybrid brain around such transparent and childish duplicity…
…and you would be right, it is literally UNBELIEVABLE that our ‘best and brightest’ resort to such blatantly misleading tactics to avoid oversight, BUT THEY DO…
do NOT blink, do NOT shy away from the truth: THESE LACKEYS OF EMPIRE WILL LIE TO YOU IN A MILLION WAYS, and only tell the truth one way: when FORCED to…

WulfTheSaxon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Wikipedia has the name in both Russian and Chechen (Царна́ев and Царнаев). For both of them, Google Translate gives Tcarnaev, Tsarnaev Tsarnayev, and Tsarnaev (it will also recognize it as Serbian, which gives Carnaev). Bing Translate gives Carnáev for the Russian version and fails on the Chechen version.

This is where I?m reminded of the Library of Congress listing over 30 ways to spell Muammar Qaddafi.

You?d think the watchlist would automatically handle different transliterations of names. IBM has software for this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Too many targets...

“there were almost 100 other names on the ?Hot List? of individuals traveling through Customs at JFK that day, and Tsarnaev was not considered high priority.”

When everyone walking through the airport is a potential terrorist, and you pretty much treat everyone as such, you tend to miss the real ones.

Maybe this “hot list” is a bit long considering 100 people on this list waltz through the airport on any given day eh?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Too many targets...


Now multiply by the number of days in the year.

Now multiply by the number of airports in the US.

Now divide by inter-airport trips (person flies from Chicago to Atlanta, so appears at ORD and ATL).

Now divide by multiple trips per person per year.

The result is still an enormous number. There is no way anyone can even begin to hint to suggest to pretend that it’s actually possible to track and monitor all those people. It’s insane.

How about wiping the list clean and starting over, ONLY adding those people who are actually a credible threat? (That leaves out dopes like the “underwear bomber”.)

Vincent Clement (profile) says:

Re: Re: Too many targets...

How about having a list that checks more than just names? How about passport information, date of birth, place of birth, past and current addresses or even a picture or two?

Does the government even audit the list? Do they check to see which names create false positives of which names have zero hits?

It’s a complete joke.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Too many targets...

How about having a list that checks more than just names? How about passport information, date of birth, place of birth, past and current addresses or even a picture or two?

Just how is a field agent or informant meant to get those? Its not exactly something you can ask in the local coffee shop to a radical Mosque.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Too many targets...

“Just how is a field agent or informant meant to get those?”

It’s called intelligence work. Regardless, if actually meaningful identity information can’t be obtained then the person shouldn’t be on the list for the simple reason that it would be impossible to accurately identify them. So your own objection is actually an argument to get rid of the list altogether.

A Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’re probably doing an exact match against the machine-readable zone at the bottom of the passport page. Since those are read extremely reliably by machines and have guaranteed transliterations, it’s not really necessary to have that kind of matching – you know exactly the letters you need to be looking for.

The likely issue is that the person entering the data didn’t realize the spelling would be different between his typical name spelling and his MRZ name spelling. So, despite being correct, the data entered was not what it needed to be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sorry no excuse. Human error or not, any clown with a shred of common sense would have seen the 1 letter off, checked the similar file, seen the warnings, and proceeded to look at a photo… Cause surely there has to be some sort of photo!?!?

Sounds like BS to me. Just more evidence that they had something to do with it

Griffdog (profile) says:

Something stinks

This story doesn’t meet the smell test. I find it impossible to believe that the DHS terrorist tracking system isn’t using a passport ID or a student visa ID as a key field. Just cannot believe it.

Name misspellings are all too common, even within the english heritage. Barbara or Barbra? Jamie or Jaime? McDonald or MacDonald?

No, this wasn’t a typographical error; any halfway decent system would have caught the error by cross-referencing the travel documentation with the DOS database, triggering an alert to double-check the entries just moments after the typo was made. This kind of error only comes from a truly broken system. Or, we’re being fed yet another fabricated excuse by an agency that’s well known for covering up its mistakes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Something stinks

Problem is that your examples are not necessarily typos, and so cannot be caught by automated systems. Unfortunately all four combinations of Jamie or Jaime and McDonald or MacDonald could be in the same database, and each one refer to more than one person. A name match, or near match is only enough to escalate identification to more reliable ways of identifying someone, such as biometrics.

Griffdog (profile) says:

Re: Re: Something stinks

I think we agree; names are not sufficient to indicate a match. Use Soundex, and you’ll get too many false positives and piss off the proletariat (the current approach, I believe).
My point was that any decent designer of the database would have used a unique identifier, such as the passport or student visa ID. You simply have to have one to travel across the US border. Why are we all going to the trouble and expense of getting passports (with RFIDs, no less), if the system is just going to ignore them in favor of whatever some airline call center operator typed on a flight ticket?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Something stinks

The problem is that some of the sources of information that indicate that someone is a danger do NOT have access to things like passport numbers. They may well only have a name and description, which may match several passports. The problem in this case was not the information from the airline, but the information naming Tsarnaev as a potential terrorist.

Vincent Clement (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Something stinks

Your problem is that you said “decent designer”. There are no “decent designers” within the government.

Look at all the kids that get tagged by the system because their name matches some 50-year old terrorist. I recall a family travelling from the UK to Disney World and they got pulled into additional screening three times because their young son’s name matched a name on the watch list.

So each time, limited resources were spent on ‘checking’ a young child. Meanwhile, suspected terrorists walk right through security. It’s a complete joke.

Anonymous Coward says:

This really sounds like another one of those, “We were looking for him but didn’t have enough data” deals. Just the sort of excuse these security branches use to get more access and authorization.

The Russians told them he was coming. Told them he was a problem. Nor is this the first time they told them. There was an article here some time back, where they actually had an interview, based on the Russian data, and determined neither the brothers nor the mother were threats. That’s after being told they were potentials. Then comes up this.

What it tells you is this whole business of a no-fly list is just as bad as the idea that the Occupy protests were terrorists. It’s all BS designed to expand the power needed to spy and collect data.

Now many are going to label this one of those conspiratart ideas. There’s not so many saying that the US government spies on it’s citizens labeling that one as such any more is there? It is just such actions as these that are raising so much distrust of our government and with just reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The Russians told them he was coming.”

Well there is Problem #1. Who would believe the Russians? Nope, if the information came from the Russians then by definition it had to be some Russian doll double triple double agent trick and our agents are cleverer than theirs so WE KNOW BEST!

“designed to expand the power needed to spy and collect data”

Just as likely as designed to maximise diversion of tax payer $$$ to defence contractors and the buddy network. One palm greases the other. As long as they’ve got theirs what could go wrong?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

riddle me this, what is more effective in justifying more surveilance, lots of terror plots, self made or not, that get prevented, or the odd terror plot that gets executed?

here is a hint, if nothing ever happens it is hard to argue for more of the same…

If there are attacks, the agencies will argue that they need more money and power to prevent such attacks. If there are no attacks, they will argue that their money and power must be maintained (if not expanded) because it’s working so well. It’s a lose-lose situation for the public.

Applesauce says:

"No one's asserting any sort of maliciousness ..."

Maybe they should. I’m reminded of the case of the border agent in the UK who put his ex on the terror watch list, stranding her in Pakistan for three years.
If malice is possible (and it demonstrably is), then a wide variety of excuses to exercise it will be found to be justified (for the greater good, of course).

FM Hilton (profile) says:


Being informed that the feds still cannot spell or communicate with one another about possible terrorists makes one sleep all so much better every night knowing that they’re diligently working to protect us from future terrorist attacks.

I mean, wasn’t 9/11 just a one-shot deal?

They have learned nothing since then.

Sure, pass all the surveillance laws you want. It doesn’t seem to stop the bad guys at all.

NOWAY says:

Re: Incompetence

Being informed that the feds still cannot spell or communicate with one another about possible terrorists makes one sleep all so much better every night knowing that they’re diligently

‘working to protect us from future terrorist attacks.’

Hopefully they’re diligently

‘working to protect us from future ‘Speeling missteks’

DNY (profile) says:

Variant renderings of Cyrillic

Misspelling or simply a different rendering of a name that’s actually spelled in Cyrillic into the Latin alphabet? I have a colleague whose names can be Englished as Rojkovskaya or Rozhkovskaia (or two other variants) none of which are misspellings. One would think our government would have the wit to list all possible Englishings of foreign names written in other alphabets in important databases like terrorist watchlists, but I guess not.

The fact that they don’t and that American reporters attribute this to “misspelling”, rather than the real cause — variant renderings of Cyrillic — is just more American insularity on display.

Reality bites (profile) says:

What else could be expected?

Garbage in garbage out, with drooling clowns filling the list, you get a list of garbage, like 100% of the federal ignorance squad.

The federal government hasn’t been functional since the 50’s. After being taken over by the warmongering defense companies the parasites doing the steering have the USA heading towards the cliff. There hasn’t been a competent human employed by the fed’s in generations.

The incompetent ignorant parasites stealing from the taxpayers and never being held accountable.

Anonymous Coward says:

This story is clear bullshit, and Techdirt journo swollowed it. If you travel from Dagestan to JFK, you are young with no apparent means of supporting yourself for half a year you Have 100% chances of being pulled aside by Customs. Regardless of name spelling. As opposed to returning from a week stay in Acapulco via same gate.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This story is clear bullshit, and Techdirt journo swollowed it. If you travel from Dagestan to JFK, you are young with no apparent means of supporting yourself for half a year you Have 100% chances of being pulled aside by Customs.

So you’re saying that contrary to what’s reported here he actually was pulled out for questioning? And your evidence for that is what?

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