Watch Lists Vary, Don't Always Flag Terrorism Suspects

There have been several new developments in the investigation into the Boston bombing. The surviving suspect is said to have told investigators that he and his brother planned to bomb New York City as well. In addition, one of the accused Boston Marathon bombers was on several government watch lists ahead of last week's attacks. Audie Cornish talks to Dina Temple-Raston for an explanation of the various lists that have been developed to flag possible terrorists and what happens when someone is placed on one.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings may have planned another attack with New York City as their target. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that he and his brother had considered blowing up their remaining explosives in Times Square. That's one of the latest developments in a fast moving case. And it comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are asking why one of the bombers, who was on a terrorist watch list, wasn't stopped.

For more, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us. Hey there, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: And let's start with New York. What do we know about this follow-on plot?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the follow-on plot appears to have been rather spontaneous. Officials say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's the one who's in the hospital with gunshot wounds, provided some detail about the New York attack during a hospital room interrogation earlier this week. A special high value interrogation team spent about 16 hours questioning him before they read him his rights. And it was during that questioning that he apparently revealed the New York plan.

Last Thursday, after they carjacked an SUV, he and his brother apparently decided on the spur of the moment that they wanted to take all their unexploded bombs to New York and set them off. And the mayor of New York and the police chief of New York talked about it today. And apparently, the problem was the stolen car that they had was low on gas. So that sort of derailed the plan a bit. And then the police ended up intercepting them. And a short time later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout.

CORNISH: And we also found out yesterday that that brother you mentioned, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been flagged and put on a terrorism watch list. But why wasn't that enough to stop the attack?

TEMPLE-RASTON: He was on something called the TIDE list. That stands for the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database. It's a very low-level terrorist watch list. To give you an idea of how low level it is, it has three-quarters of a million people on it. Nothing necessarily happens if you are on the TIDE list. It's basically a list of people who have had some sort of question raised about them. You could get on the list, for example, with a poison pen letter.

And in Tamerlan's case, the listing would have indicated that he'd been interviewed by the FBI and they didn't find anything wrong.

CORNISH: And is that the TIDE list the same one the CIA wanted Tamerlan placed on?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, they had requested that. The Russians apparently told the CIA, after they told the FBI, that they were worried about Tamerlan. And the agency didn't do an independent evaluation. Officials just suggested that Tamerlan be included on this list. And that automatically meant he was also put on something called the Terrorist Screening Database, which is an unclassified version of TIDE.

And again, in the absence of any other information, that doesn't set off a bunch of secondary checks.

CORNISH: All right. Just so - it gets a little confusing - classified, unclassified - there's multiple lists, some are more selective than others. What are the more selective lists and what would someone have to do to land on them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, There's basically a hierarchy to these lists, and they're basically three tiers. And the term Terrorist Watch List, which we bandy around a lot, has become a catchall phrase for all of them.

After the TIDE list, the next level up is something called the Selectee List. It has just 14,000 names. And I was actually put on a selectee list for several months after I returned from reporting for NPR in Pakistan. I was in Pakistan for about a month, which is about the same amount of time it would take someone to go to a training camp, so I looked suspicious. And you get very intense secondary screening on that.

They would Xerox my boarding pass. They would take my driver's license and Xerox that. They would take every stitch of clothing out of my bag and swab for bomb residue. There was a fairly intrusive pat-down. And my understanding is that what happened to me is fairly typical. It happened to me, you know, about a dozen times. And officials say that Tamerlan, the one we're speaking about, wasn't on that list either.

CORNISH: And what about the No-Fly List? I mean, that's the one, I think, that more people may have heard of. I mean, how does that fit in here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the list has about 10,000 people on it. It's for passengers who authorities believe could threaten a plane or might be traveling to commit a terrorist act, or for passengers who perhaps attended a terrorist training camp. No one's told they're on it. You basically figure out that you're on a No-Fly List when they don't let you get on the plane. And it's notoriously difficult to get off that list. And officials told me that Tamerlan wasn't on that list either.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.