US authorities failed to detain Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who would later become one of the two Boston Marathon bombers, when he entered the country in 2012, because of a spelling mistake in a security database, a Congressional report has found.
According to the report, which was prepared by the House Homeland Security Committee, the FBI and the CIA had been warned of Tsarnaev’s extremist views by Russian authorities in 2011. After an investigation and a personal interview, the CIA concluded that Tsarnaev had no links to terrorism. Nevertheless, the agency entered Tsarnaev’s name, in its correct spelling, into a Customs and Border Protection database, NBC reported Wednesday.
But when they refreshed the blacklist after the investigation, CIA officials accidentally misspelled Tsarnaev’s name as “Tsarnayev.” Thus, his name did not alert security officials when he returned from a 2012 trip to Russia, where, according to US officials, he “may have been in touch” with suspected militants.
In the wake of the bombing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged that the system had “pinged” when Tsarnaev left the US, but said his re-entry remained unnoticed.
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As someone who wrote name-matching software in her career, it never does just to compare one string of letters to another. At the very least, a widely available feature called SOUNDEX should be added. We used a point system, adding points based on partial name matches and matches with other demographic data (such as birth date). Some questionable ones would be shown to let the user decide.