Tsarnaev Brothers Planned Times Square Attack After Boston Bombing

The brothers suspected in the Boston bombings apparently told the FBI they planned to set off additional explosives in New York City's Times Square. Judy Woodruff talks to Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, about what U.S. intelligence knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the years before the attack on Boston.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: New York City was supposedly going to be the next target of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers. Mayor Michael Bloomberg disclosed that during a news conference today.

Bloomberg said FBI officials were told by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that he and his brother decided spontaneously to attempt an attack on Times Square last week.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly filled in other details of the plan after Bloomberg spoke first.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York City: He told the FBI apparently that he and his brother had intended to drive to New York and detonate additional explosives in Times Square. They had built these additional explosives, and we know they had the capacity to carry out these attacks.

POLICE COMMISSIONER RAYMOND KELLY, New York City: They discussed this while driving around in a Mercedes SUV that they had hijacked after they shot and killed an MIT police officer in Cambridge, Dzhokhar said.

That plan, however, fell apart when they realized that the vehicle that they hijacked was low on gas and ordered the driver to stop at a nearby gas station. The driver used the opportunity to escape and call the police. That eventually led to the shoot-out in Watertown, where the older brother was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police.

Up until that point, the two brothers had at their disposal six improvised explosive devices. One was a pressure cooker bomb similar to the two that had exploded at the marathon. The other five were pipe bombs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more now on what was reported and the continuing investigation, we are joined again by Dina Temple-Raston of NPR.

Dina, welcome to the NewsHour again.

Just fill us in on what investigators are learning that they're passing on.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, National Public Radio: Well, in this particular case, when we're talking about the New York plot, what they learned actually happened in 16 hours, a couple of marathon interrogation sessions that a special interrogation team had at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's bedside.

And it was during that time, before he was Mirandized, before he was read his rights that he provided some of these details about the spontaneous attack that they thought about having in New York. And they did have the capacity to do it, as Commissioner Kelly said. They had the bombs.

It was a question of whether or not they would actually get all the way to New York. And they had a gas problem and then ultimately the police surrounded them and ended up killing the elder brother, Tamerlan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this came out, as you said, in the course of some -- you said some 16 hours of interrogation over several sessions with the younger Tsarnaev brother. So they were piecing the story together; is that the way it worked?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, basically what's going on now is exactly that, that the FBI is trying to piece together what happened in the days and months leading up to the attack.

So, for example, there are FBI agents who are now in Asia who are interviewing the Tsarnaevs' parents to try and find out, for example, what Tamerlan, who had been in Russia for six months last year, what he was doing while he was there. They are looking for actual gaps in the schedule, for some sort of indication that perhaps he wasn't with his family or wasn't with his father and might have trained at a terrorist training camp.

And that would have given him the capacity to build these bombs. They're very curious to know whether or not the two young men were able to do this on their own, to build these kinds of bombs and allegedly wreak this kind of havoc just by use a recipe that they may have found on the Internet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dina, how does this New York angle though square with what seemed to be coming out earlier that they didn't have any other attacks planned or if they were going to go to New York, it was just to party?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's what we had heard that the young man Dzhokhar originally said.

But, you know, the way this works is he says something. And then they try and check it out. If it's inconsistent, then they come become and talk to him again. And we did hear from the FBI early on that they were trying to corroborate a lot of what Dzhokhar was telling them.

And this was clearly something that they feel that he was holding back. And they were able to go a little bit further. I mean, we do know that they interrogated the man whose SUV they carjacked. And he said that they had discussed New York. So I think that's how they put these two things together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you getting an understanding of how these interrogations are working? Are they surrounding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his hospital bed and peppering him with questions? I mean, how is this working?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think originally, the first 16 hours, what they were trying to do is actually build a rapport with him to try to get him to talk.

And once they had established that there were no -- there weren't any other co-conspirators and that they didn't think that there would be any other bombs going off or any other attacks, they actually Mirandized him. So they had 16 hours of trying to establish whether or not there was a public safety concern. And once they had satisfied themselves that there wasn't, they Mirandized him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you said, still -- they are not taking what he is saying at face value, but they do seem to be passing it along.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think after it's corroborated, they seem to be passing it along.

They’re not taking anything the parents in Russia are saying at face value either. They are claiming that the entire time that Tamerlan was in Russia that he was -- they knew of his whereabouts. And they are saying that the reason why he went to Russia was because he needed to get a Russian passport, that his passport was going to expire. He hadn't become a naturalized citizen here in America, so he needed a passport, and that's why he went for six months to visit his father.

I mean, that's not beyond the pale -- it's not beyond the realm of possibility, given that his father was living there and he was there for six months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separately, Dina, what about these reports that the Russians notified not only the FBI, but now we learn today the CIA, with information, warnings about the older brother, Tamerlan? What do we know, and what happened to those warnings?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, our understanding is that those warnings came into the FBI, and the FBI took them seriously and actually interviewed Tamerlan three times and interviewed his parents and actually did a rather extensive database on them.

And they were told by the Russians in kind of vague terms, our reporting is showing, that he was somehow connected to Muslim extremists in Russia. And he -- they were told that he was a threat to Russia, not to the U.S., but to Russia. So the FBI tried to run this to ground. They didn't find any derogatory evidence. They said as much. And they put him on something called the TIDE list, which stands for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database.

And basically what it is, the lowest level database that they have is a so-called terrorist watch list. They have about three quarters of a million people on it. So it is a very low level database. And he was put on that. And then after the Russians contacted the CIA, the CIA also suggested that he be put on the TIDE list. And he was. So that -- those things seem very consistent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And rising now criticism from some Republican senators that the administration, that the CIA, the FBI didn't do enough to be on guard with Tamerlan Tsarnaev after they got these warnings.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that is the big question.

And I think there is probably going end up being some sort of inquiry about that. But the FBI's line on this is that he wasn't doing anything illegal. And they did as much investigation as they could and they couldn't find anything, a predicate for them to go beyond just putting him on this TIDE list.

And because of that, I think there is some criticism, why wasn't he, for example, put on the selectee list, which is a slightly higher list? There is basically a hierarchy of lists. And a selectee list, there are about 14,000 people on that list, we think. And that would be someone who would be secondarily screened and perhaps tracked a little bit more closely.

And then, of course, there's the famous no-fly list. And we all know about that one, which has about 10,000 people on it. And no one knows if they are actually on the no-fly list until they get to the airport, and then they're not allowed to fly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the investigation continues.

Dina Temple-Raston, thank you.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: And beyond the news of the investigation, there were some powerful moments today from a severely injured patient who spoke at a press conference at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Heather Abbott, a 38-year-old woman from Rhode Island, recounted her experience and her choice to have her lower leg amputated. Doctors had tried to save her foot for nearly a week. Abbott had come to Boston on the day of the bombings to watch a Red Sox game. She was standing in line to get into a bar near where the second bomb went off.

HEATHER ABBOTT, Bombing Survivor: It blew a bunch of us into the bar.

And I suppose it hit me because I was the last one. I was on the ground. Everybody was running to back of the bar to the exit. And I felt like my foot was on fire. I knew I couldn't stand up. I didn't know what to do. I was just screaming, somebody, please help me.

And I was thinking, who is going to help me? I mean, everybody else is running for their lives. And to my surprise, and from what I'm learning now, I'm kind of just learning how I was sort of rescued out of there, there were two women and two men involved in helping me get out of the bar and into an ambulance.

And you can't sit there and say what if. What if I arrived five minutes later or five minutes earlier, or what if I decided not to go to the game this year? And I think I did that for a little while, but this is the situation I'm faced with. It's not going to change. So for me to just kind of dwell on negative is sort of a waste of time for me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Heather Abbott, a 38-year-old woman from Rhode Island who had one of her legs, lower legs amputated at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.