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June 15, 2013 1:08 PM Emerging pattern in Tamerlan Tsarnaev case and NSA dragnet justifications

By Samuel Knight

POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein came out with a story on Tamerlan Tsarnaev today that could have an impact on the NSA debate.

Gerstein noticed that during “a little-noticed exchange before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said that the Bureau had heard of Tsarnaev before the Russian government contacted federal officials about him.

“His name had come up in two other cases,” Mueller said in response to questions from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “Those two other cases, the individuals had their cases closed. So, he was one or two person [sic] away.”

I’m reluctant to say how this might inform the NSA debate - I don’t know if this supports the dragnet or the argument that it doesn’t work. Nor do I wish to pass judgment on the FBI in this instance - hindsight is 20/20, and merely knowing suspicious people shouldn’t necessitate probably cause. But much of the justification over the mass surveillance centers around the argument that it supposedly looks for suspicious patterns in metadata. In Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s case, the FBI found what seems like the emergence of a suspicious pattern and decided it didn’t constitute probable cause.

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.

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