Fact Check

Boston Marathon Bombers on Welfare and Watch Lists

Did the accused Boston Marathon bombers collect welfare benefits while on U.S. government watch lists?

Published Apr 25, 2013

Claim:   The accused Boston Marathon bombers collected welfare benefits while on U.S. government watch lists.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, April 2013]

Is this true, that the Tsarnaevs were on government watch lists but collected welfare?


Origins:   One of the details that emerged about the accused Boston Marathon bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, in the week after the bombings was that elder brother Tamerlan's name had been added to two U.S. government watch lists in late 2011 in response
to Russian government requests for information on him:

Despite being told in 2011 that an F.B.I. review had found that a man who went on to become one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings had no ties to extremists, the Russian government asked the Central Intelligence Agency six months later for whatever information it had on him, American officials said.

After its review, the C.I.A. also told the Russian intelligence service that it had no suspicious information on the man, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with the police early [on 19 April 2013]. It is not clear what prompted the Russians to make the request of the C.I.A.

The upshot of the American inquiries into Mr. Tsarnaev's background was that even though he was found to have no connections to extremist groups, his name was entered into two different United States government watch lists in late 2011 that were designed to alert the authorities if he traveled overseas.

After the C.I.A. cleared him of any ties to violent extremism in October 2011, it asked the National Counterterrorism Center, the nation's main counterterrorism agency, to add his name to a watch list as a precaution, an American intelligence official said. Other agencies, including the State Department, the Homeland Security Department and the F.B.I., were alerted.

That database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, contains about 700,000 names. It is the main repository from which other government watch lists are drawn,

including the F.B.I.'s Terrorist Screening Database and the Transportation Security Administration's "no fly" list.

The information conveyed to the watch list included a transliteration from Cyrillic of Mr. Tsarnaev's name — "Tamerlan Tsarnayev" — two dates of birth (both incorrect, officials said), and one possible variant spelling of his name.

[F.B.I.] agents concluded by June 2011 that they could not find any connections to extremists, and in August the results of the assessment were provided to the Russians, according to the United States official.

In closing out its report, the F.B.I.'s field office in Boston added Mr. Tsarnaev's name to a second watch list, the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, or TECS, which was set up to send an electronic message to customs officials whenever Mr. Tsarnaev left the country.

When Tamerlan Tsarnaev left the country on Jan. 12, 2012, for a six-month trip to Dagestan and Chechnya, predominantly Muslim republics in the North Caucasus region of Russia, his flight reservation set off a security alert to customs authorities, the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, told a Senate committee.

But Mr. Tsarnaev's departure apparently did not set off a similar alert on the TIDE watch list because the spelling variants of his name and the birth dates entered into the system — exactly how the Russian government had provided the data months earlier — were different enough from the correct information to prevent an alert, a United States official said.

When Mr. Tsarnaev returned in July, the travel alert "was more than a year old and had expired," Ms. Napolitano said.

Subsequent news accounts reported that Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother of Tamerlan and Dzhokar, had herself been placed in the TIDE database in 2011.

Another piece of information that emerged around the same time was that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had received welfare benefits from the state of Massachusetts, although the nature and extent of public assistance received by him and his younger brother Dzhokar remains murky as state officials have so far cited privacy concerns in declining to reveal that information to the public:

The [Boston] Herald reported that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and 3-year-old daughter collected welfare until 2012 and that both Tamerlan and Dzhokhar received benefits through their parents "for a limited portion" of the time after they came to the U.S., which was around 2002. However, the Department of Transitional Assistance wouldn't release information about how long or how much they received.

The [governor's] administration clamped down the lid on Herald requests for details of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's government benefits, citing the dead terror mastermind's right to privacy.

Across the board, state agencies flatly refused to provide information about the taxpayer-funded lifestyle for the 26-year-old man and his brother and accused accomplice Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.

On EBT card status or spending, state welfare spokesman Alec Loftus would only say Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and 3-year-old daughter received benefits that ended in 2012. He declined further comment.

On unemployment compensation, labor department spokesman Kevin Franck refused to say whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev ever collected, saying it was "confidential and not a matter of public record."

On Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's college aid, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth spokesman Robert Connolly said, "It is our position — and I believe the accepted position in higher education — that student records including academic records and financial records (including financial aid) cannot under federal law be released without a student's consent."

On cellphones, the Federal Communications Commission would not say whether either brother had a government-paid cellphone, also citing privacy laws.

On housing, Cambridge officials and the family's landlord ducked questions on whether the brothers were ever on Section 8 assistance.

The public paid for Tamerlan Tsarnaev's attorney when the Russian national successfully fought criminal charges in 2009 that he battered a former girlfriend.

So, based on currently available information, it appears that one of the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan) was on U.S. government watch lists, and at least one of the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan again) received some form of public assistance, but details of the latter (and whether Dzhokar received similar assistance) are still unclear.

Last updated:   26 April 2013


    Cassidy, Chris et al.   "Patrick Administration Refuses to Release Tsarnaev Brothers' Records."

    Boston Herald.   25 April 2013.

    Deutsch, Kevin.   "Source: Zubeidat Tsarnaeva Added to Terrorism Watch List in 2011."

    Newsday.   26 April 2013.

    Schmitt, Eric et al.   "2 U.S. Agencies Added Boston Bomb Suspect to Watch Lists."

    The New York Times.   24 April 2013.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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