The Bureau Vs. the Boston Bomber

Can the FBI leverage new technologies and post-9/11 investigative powers to track down the culprit behind the Boston Marathon bombing?

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Neal Hamberg / Reuters

FBI agents arrive at the scene after explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013

The contest between law enforcement and the bomber who killed three and wounded more than 175 at the Boston Marathon on Monday is taking place in a very different arena from past investigations. Where the Unabomber used the deep woods and isolation to hide, the Boston bomber is using the anonymity of crowds and the open-source knowledge of the Internet in his attempt to elude justice. But over the past few years, the cops have learned to fight on that field too.

By all accounts, the FBI started cold on the case, meaning they had no prior information of the bomb plot to guide them as they began the hunt. From the start, the feds pursued traditional modes of investigation to begin generating the evidence for an eventual conviction of the murderer. They sealed the bomb site within minutes of the blast and soon enough found the telltale pieces of a pressure-cooker bomb of the kind favored by Islamic extremists and admired by right-wing militias.

At first, the bomber seemed to have the advantage. He had chosen a crowded public event as his target, making it hard for potential witnesses to differentiate him from thousands of innocent bystanders and increasing the likelihood that evidence might have been destroyed in the mayhem after the explosion. And he had used a crude but effective bomb design that is widely available on the Web, and the parts to which can be bought at major retail stores or at hardware stores.

But the cops have new tools to fight back against this approach, some of them the product of technological advances, others given to them by law after 9/11. Pressure-cooker bombs are sometimes detonated remotely by cell phone. If the bomber used that method, the FBI will have access to all calls made at or around the time of the explosions, thanks to detailed records of traffic through local cell towers that are routinely kept by carriers and are made available to law enforcement often without a court order (though in this case a subpoena would be easy to get).

The next big advantage for law enforcement is the proliferation of video cameras in recent years, both public and private. Investigators called on all those who took pictures and videos near the bomb site to review them for anything that could help investigators. “There has to be hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs, videos and other observations that were made down at that finish line yesterday,” says Timothy Alben, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police. “You might not think it’s significant, but it might have some value to this investigation.”

And in reviewing tape from a local store in the area of the blast, the FBI reportedly identified one or more suspects who may have left the bags containing the bombs. Now with initial leads on suspects, law enforcement will try to identify them and gather evidence they committed the crime. Here they will have two possible avenues, one traditional and one with newer powers, depending on whether the suspects have foreign terrorist connections or not.

If investigators uncover a potential suspect who has no link to foreign terrorism, they will rely on the traditional warrants and subpoenas. These include Title III surveillance powers, which are strong — investigators can eavesdrop on a suspect at home and as he moves in public, for example. And if they can show probable cause that the suspect committed a crime, they can tap broad grand jury, administrative and other subpoena powers to obtain evidence from businesses and individuals.

If investigators can show a link to foreign terrorism, they can use so-called Section 215 search orders under the Patriot Act, which allow the FBI to take physical objects of any sort from individuals and businesses, including banking and phone records, and photographs, without a court order. They can also use National Security Letters to collect so-called noncontent records, like the subject and date information from e-mails, among other things, without a court order. Lastly, if a link to international terrorism is shown, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act powers are available, including longer surveillance and protections from revealing sources and methods in eventual court cases.

Perhaps the hardest question for law enforcement in this new arena will come after they believe they have enough evidence to convict a suspect. At that point, they could bust him and take him to trial, or they could continue surveillance in the hope of uncovering a larger network that might try to strike Americans again in the future. If the suspect is an international terrorist, intelligence agencies in Washington will push for gathering as much intelligence as possible against the larger threat from abroad, which could delay an arrest.


Great job FBI.  Gee, after the bombing did it ever occur to you that the "radical muslim" you had recently been asked to watch for terrorist tendencies could be a suspect ?  Considering that he lived a mile and a half from the bombing location ?  And that he just finished 6 months back in Chechnya/Dagestan aka "Disneyworld for ruthless terrorists" ???  And that he was posting terrorist support videos all over the internet ?  Nope, guess not.  No pictures of him laying around to match with videos of bombing crowd ? ? To show to poor guy who got his leg blown off and made freakin eye contact with bomber close up ??  Forgot those distinctive big broken noses on the Chechens' faces ? Slipped your minds ?  Good ole Tamerlan must have really pulled the wool over FBIs eyes.  Guess we couldn't deport him (green card only) for the girlfriend beating or anything like that.

First September 11th (FBI too lazy to get search warrant for terrorist computer) and now this we can thank the feeble FBI for sleep-walking through.

If they had been any kind of real smart terrorists the 6 day head start provided by the absent-minded FBI would have placed them sipping Mai Tais in Waziristan.  Or planting their next batch of bombs.  Only killed one cop and wounded a second during the 6 day FBI brain freeze.

AmberDru 1 Like

Our "immigrants" keep trying to blow up us! Can we stop it with mass illegal alien Gang of 8 amnesty already! We need to better vet our "immigrants........


@AmberDru perhaps we shall start to deport you and your family first back to where your ancestor is from.  Such an ignorant comment.


Now that it is obvious that foreign terrorists are operating within our borders - will you pansies shut up about infringing on our 2nd Amendment Rights?


@theybredraptors Wouldn't that make you the pansy? Since you are the one acting irrationality based on fear. Five people died.(when you include the police) Millions die in cars every year. No reason to give up the freedoms that make us secure. You are still more likely to be killed by the police mistakenly than by terrorists in america. They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.-

Benjamin Franklin


Since you're quoting Benjamin Franklin, how do you think HE would feel about the government infringing on our 2nd Amendment Rights?



The context for Benjamin Franklin's famous words condemning those who "can give up essential liberty" was his discussion of the refusal of Virginia's colonial assembly to adopt Jefferson's 1759 proposal on colonials' inalienable right to bear arms: "The thoughtful reader may wonder," Franklin wrote, "why wasn't Jefferson's proposal of 'No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms' adopted by the Virginia legislature? They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Taken from -(


Try to be less obvious about your hopes that the terrorist is an American: 

"pressure cooker bomb of the kind favored by Islamic extremists and admired by right wing militias" 

shepherdwong 1 Like

@Eastside "Try to be less obvious about your hopes that the terrorist is an American..."

I didn't notice any favoritism. He named the two main groups who advocate for and plan violence against the Unites States government.

VegasBoondox 1 Like

Taggants in gunpowder could be easily defeated by terrorists as the components of  black powder - sulfur, charcoal, and salt petre - are ubiquitous. But requiring taggants in commercial nitro powder would make ammunition prohibitively expensive - your real objective. Why not be honest and propose what you really want; repeal of the 2nd Amendment?

grape_crush 1 Like

@VegasBoondox> Taggants in gunpowder could be easily defeated by terrorists as the components of  black powde...

So? Doesn't mean that it won't help law enforcement find the bad guys who aren't nicknamed 'Heisenberg' and have don't have the skill or knowledge to do it. It's stupid to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

> But requiring taggants in commercial nitro powder would make ammunition prohibitively expensive...

Bull. The technique is already in use in various products as a means of identifying counterfeit merchandise and is already used in other explosives:

"Taggants are not new. In the late 1970s, a federal pilot project added taggants to explosives. When a 1979 car bomb killed Nathan Allen of Baltimore, taggant evidence from the bomb led investigators to Allen's murderer. A federal appeals court upheld the use of taggant evidence and ruled that "the use of taggants in explosives rests upon well-established scientific principles." The Swiss government has required taggants in commercial explosives for years and has used this evidence to solve dozens of cases."

Plus, there's always tax breaks that can be given if there is substantial cost incurred, release from liability for manufacturers, etc. On top of that, I have to again say, "So?" There are ways to deal with the additional costs, if significant.

But the NRA has opposed even researching the use of these identifiers in gunpowder. It's like they want to make it hard for law enforcement to find the bad guys.

> Why not be honest and propose what you really want; repeal of the 2nd Amendment?

We're not anti-gun or anti-Second Amendment. We're anti-stupid.

cent-fan 3 Like

Who told you that - the ammunition manufacturers?  Thought so...   And solar panels will make energy prices go through the roof.  And immunization is designed to spread disease.

I own guns and I certainly want the repeal of your version of the Second Amendment.

gysgt213 3 Like

How the gun lobby has already blocked Boston’s bombing investigators

Explosives manufacturers are required to place tracing elements known as identification taggants only in plastic explosives but not in gunpowder, thanks to lobbying efforts by the NRA and large gun manufacturing groups.

jmac 1 Like

@gysgt213   Yesterdays's vote:   "Even a bipartisan amendment to impose stiff penalties on gun traffickers, which was supported by the N.R.A. and expected to be adopted by voice vote, instead was defeated, receiving 58 votes, as the partisan lines hardened."

We can't extend background checks to the Internet and gun show sales, we can't toughen up on gun traffickers, we can't function as a nation with a powerful gun lobby that buys our politicians and makes sure they're not re-elected should they stray one inch.   We can't even retaliate by crying "shame" as they will make even that cry a rallying point to justify their hardheadedness.