The FBI-Russia connection
Suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing April 15 in handout photo released on the FBI website, April 18, 2013. REUTERS/FBI/Handout
When the Russian security service in 2011 asked the FBI to check up on Tamerlan Tsarnaev – one of two brothers now suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing – the request would have come as no surprise to a quiet, former FBI special agent in northern California.
Michael di Pretoro had been sent to Moscow in 1994 as the FBI’s first legal attaché, or “legat,” in Russia. He had a daunting task: to establish formal cooperation between the FBI and the Russian police and security services.
The bureau’s hope was that a successful liaison arrangement would help both countries fight Russian organized crime. “There was the issue of loose nukes,” di Pretoro said. “One of my biggest fears was someone would get one of these nuclear weapons and it would cause a catastrophe in the U.S.”
The ex-FBI agent, who now runs his own international consulting business, first persuaded the Russian MVD, which handled criminal investigations, to sign on to the liaison arrangement. Minutes after officially setting up the new office, di Pretoro got a call from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) the agency responsible for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
“We’d like to talk to you about cooperation,” the FSB caller told him. “We think counterterrorism, that’s an area we can work together on.”
Before the year was out, the FBI man had achieved his goal. “We met with the Russians on a regular basis, on nuclear smuggling, organized crime and counterterrorism,” di Pretoro said. “We would have regular meetings with the FSB and the MVD.” The FBI legat met weekly with the Russian police “and once every two or three weeks with the FSB.”
There was a certain irony in the arrangement because the FSB had been developed out of the notorious KGB, the Soviet security and intelligence service. The second chief directorate of the KGB, which had morphed into the FSB, was also responsible for the surveillance of CIA officers working out of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. So the FSB is the agency in charge of counterespionage of catching American spies in Russia.
When it serves the interests of both sides, however, the FSB and the FBI have worked together. The CIA was well aware of the arrangement, and in the odd, topsy-turvy world of spies, it has its own relationship with the FSB.
The machinery of cooperation that di Pretoro created paid off in 1995, when a Russian computer hacker in St. Petersburg stole $10 million from Citibank. The hacker and his confederates had been able to penetrate Citibank’s system for electronic transfer of funds and moved money to their own accounts in several countries. The FBI and the Russians, working together, managed to recover all but $400,000 of the stolen money.
The hacker, Vladimir Levin, 28, was arrested while trying to make a connecting flight in London. He was extradited to the United States, pleaded guilty in a trial in New York and was sentenced to three years in prison.
This kind of cooperation was not unusual, and Washington asked questions regularly. “About once a month they [the Russian services] would ask for help,” di Pretoro remembers. “It was much more us asking for their help.” A few years later the Russians put a liaison officer into their embassy in Washington.
When the Russians asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, Moscow said it feared he planned to travel abroad to join Chechen terrorists. The FBI’s Boston field office looked into this, even eventually interviewing Tsarnaev, but concluded that he was not then involved in any extremist activities. That was reported back to the Russians.
The FBI has also said it asked the Russians in 2011 for “more specific or additional information” to aid the bureau in its inquiries. But it did not receive a response.
In the wake of the Boston bombings, the FBI is investigating whether, when Tsarnaev visited Dagestan last year, he had contact with radical Islamic groups.
When di Pretoro used to meet with the Russians, their requests would come in writing and often dealt with fraud and financial crimes, money laundering and sometimes organized crime. But the sort of request for information about Tsarnaev was not that unusual, according to an FBI official familiar with the case.
The FBI has, however, long been cautious about becoming involved in Moscow’s problems with Chechen separatists. When the Russians have tried to enlist bureau help in investigating individual Chechens, the FBI has usually insisted that Moscow show some U.S. connection. Since Tsarnaev was living in Boston and had a green card, there was such a U.S. connection and the FBI agreed to the Russian request.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama spoke twice by telephone. A White House statement said Obama praised the “close cooperation” Washington has received on counterterrorism from Moscow. Putin has condemned the “disgusting” crime and offered to help Washington. Russian officials have questioned the parents of the Tsarnaev brothers.
Nonetheless, relations between the governments in Washington and Moscow have cooled considerably since the “reset” publicized during the first Obama administration. In the intervening years, Putin has jailed political opponents, cracked down on human rights and other non-governmental Western organizations in Moscow, and banned the adoption of Russian children by American couples. In Syria, Putin continues to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while Obama wants the Syrian leader to step down.
But an FBI official knowledgeable about the framework established by di Pretoro 19 years ago says that the relationship between the bureau and the Russian services does not vary much with changes in the diplomatic winds. “Our cooperation is at the working level,” this FBI official said, “and it is largely unaffected by political developments or diplomatic relations.
“It goes on,” the official said, “because we are directly supporting each others’ investigative interests. I’m not saying there couldn’t be a chill in the air from time to time. But these are largely law enforcement relationships.”
The official went on to explain some details. “They [the Russians] have been helpful on international cyber cases, a lot originating in Estonia, Romania and Russia, and we have worked closely on those cases,” he said. “They involve botnets, denial of service attacks and organized crime money-making schemes.” And as the Russian request to the FBI to investigate Tsarnaev illustrated, the cooperation at times may extend to counterterrorism.
The bureau surely did not imagine that the subject of the routine inquiry would, two years later, become a central figure in the biggest act of terrorism in the United States since September 11, 2001.
However, the Russian request and the FBI investigation and interview with Tsarnaev demonstrate that the liaison arrangements established almost two decades ago are still in place.