Spelling mistake let Boston bomber slip by U.S. intelligence

Misspelling of "Tsarnaev" in a cable reminds us that human error haunts even the fiercest national security state

Natasha Lennard
March 26, 2014 8:40PM (UTC)

A new congressional report addresses how the Tsarnaev brothers -- responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings -- were able to evade FBI capture, despite warnings from Russia about the brothers as potentially dangerous.

The truth -- somewhat chilling in our age of advanced technocapital and surveillance -- is that the bombers were missed because of sheer human error. A spelling mistake let Tamerlan Tsarnaev slip through the intelligence net. As Reuters reports:


In September 2011, the FSB sent a cable to the CIA, restating the warnings of the first memo [about the Chechen's militant links]. NBC News quoted sources close to the congressional investigation as saying a second note about Tsarnaev was entered into the TECS system the next month, but spelled his name "Tsarnayev."

Were it not for the error, the Tsarnaev brother may well have been detained when traveling into JFK airport in January 2012, since, based on Russian intel, the Chechen's detention on U.S. soil was deemed mandatory. "U.S. officials have said a misspelling of Tsarnaev's name on flight records may have contributed to some law enforcement agencies not being alerted to his movements."

The findings are a stark reminder that even the most paranoid national security state cannot escape human error and chinks in ever more reinforced armor.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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