UK paper claims Saudis warned the US about Tsarnaev
Update: The Daily Mail, which has been good about reporting contrary responses to this story, updated it to include an official denial from the Saudi embassy:
‘The Saudi government had no prior information about the Boston bombers. Therefore, it is not true that any information, written or otherwise, was passed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or any other US agency in this regard,’ an embassy statement statement claimed.
‘The Saudi government also does not have any record of any application by Tamerlan Tsarnaev for any visa to Saudi Arabia.’
The remainder of the Daily Mail piece seems to have been left as originally written.
The White House and Department of Homeland Security claim this story is untrue, and it’s based entirely on the testimony of a single anonymous Saudi official (plus corroboration from one equally anonymous DHS official), so a grain of salt is recommended to aid in digesting it. If it’s true, it’s a devastating bombshell that could prove to be more of a game-changer than Syria’s chemical weapons. (Okay, maybe that’s a weak metaphor, given President Obama’s definition of a “game changer” as something that doesn’t change anything except political rhetoric.)
At any rate, the UK Daily Mail reports that a “senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document” says his government warned the Department of Homeland Security, in writing, about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2012. The letter allegedly included a specific warning that he might be interested in assembling bombs, advising that his mail should be checked for bomb-making materials.
The Saudi warning, the official told MailOnline, was separate from the multiple red flags raised by Russian intelligence in 2011, and was based on human intelligence developed independently in Yemen.
Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed.
The guy was too radical to get into Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage to Mecca, but American intelligence didn’t think he was worth keeping an eye on? The Saudi source for the Daily Mail story later observes that the Kingdom is especially leery of radicalized American Muslims, who create an “unusual problem” when they try to visit Mecca, prompting the Saudis to “carefully examine applications.”
The high-ranking Saudi official whom MailOnlne interviewed at length provided a wealth of detail about the warning he says his government sent to the United States. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk publicly about foreign intelligence, or about Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic relationship with the United States.
He suggested that the Saudi Ministry of Interior sent the letter out of an abundance of caution in order to be helpful to the United States, even though its intelligence on Tsarnaev wasn’t yet fully developed.
‘With Saudi Arabia it’s always code red,’ he said. ‘There’s no code orange, or code yellow. Always red.’
This letter was also sent to the British government, so it should be possible to verify its existence. As mentioned above, the Daily Mail claims to have spoken with a DHS official who confirmed its authenticity. The Saudis should also have some records we could review, although I’m not sure how confident U.S. intelligence feels about its ability to authenticate Saudi documents (i.e. prove that the papers really were drafted on the indicated date and sent through the appropriate channels to American and British officials.)
The Saudi official also implied that this warning about Tsarnaev might have led to meetings President Obama held with the Saudi interior minister in January, and the curious unscheduled meeting he held with the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, two days after the Boston Marathon bombings. If that’s true – particularly if the interior minister personally conveyed a warning about Tsarnaev to Obama in January! – all hell will officially break loose.
The Daily Mail dutifully includes denials from the White House and DHS, which are really going to come back to haunt them, if this story checks out:
If true, the account will produce added pressure on the Homeland Security department and the White House to explain their collective inaction after similar warnings were offered about Tsarnaev by the Russian government.
A DHS official denied, however, that the agency received any such warning from Saudi intelligence about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
‘DHS has no knowledge of any communication from the Saudi government regarding information on the suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing prior to the attack,’ MailOnline learned from one Homeland Security official who declined to be named in this report.
The White House took a similar view. ‘We and other relevant U.S. government agencies have no record of such a letter being received,’ said Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the president’s National Security Council.
Of course, this is the same administration in which the Attorney General dodged perjury charges in the deadly Fast and Furious scandal by claiming he never reads his email, and the White House managed to bluff its way through an election by claiming some nameless rogue operative in the intelligence community bamboozled it with a phony story about “spontaneous video protests” when terrorists murdered the U.S. ambassador to Libya. A staffer for a Republican member of the House Homeland Security Committee appeared to be thinking along those lines:
It is possible the Department of Homeland Security received the information from the Saudi government but never passed it on to the White House,’ the GOP staffer said. ‘Communication between DHS and the White House’s national security apparatus isn’t always what it should be.’
‘I can easily see it happening where one hand didn’t know what the other was doing because of a turf war.’
‘Just like the different agencies in the Boston JTTF [Joint Terrorism Task Force] want credit for breaking the Tsarnaev case,’ the aide added, ‘they sometimes jealously guard the very intel they should be sharing the most freely. Sometimes it makes no sense at all.’
I thought the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to fix all that. In fact, I thought the entire purpose of DHS was to break down communications barriers between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. If this story is true, then not only should Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano lose her job, but the department should be dismantled. It obviously isn’t serving its purpose, so our homeland security resources should be invested more effectively.
These allegations are so explosive that we really need to see that physical documentation before reaching any conclusions. The Obama Administration’s record for honesty, transparency, and inter-agency coordination is appalling, so there’s no reason to take their denials on faith, but the Saudis have been known to create stories for their own benefit (i.e. they don’t like Yemen, which they link strongly to Tamerlan Tsarnaev in ways we haven’t heard before, and they want to burnish their own credentials as terror fighters.) One anonymous Saudi official and one nameless DHS source aren’t good enough to nail down something this big.