Some Lawmakers Claim the Tsarnaevs Couldn’t Have Acted Alone. Where’s Their Proof?

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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On Sunday afternoon, Slate’s Daniel Politi noted that some American lawmakers suspect that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received some sort of outside training in advance of the Boston Marathon bombing. Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News that “I think the experts all agree that there is someone who did train these two individuals.” McCaul cited the “level of sophistication” and “tradecraft” of the marathon bombs as evidence that the Tsarnaevs probably had some help, and questioned the “narrative being played out by some in the administration” about how “it’s just these two guys” operating on their own.

Judging from the Fox News segment, McCaul’s argument rests on two points: 1) pressure-cooker bombs are a signature technique of radical groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and 2) the bombs were allegedly detonated by a remote control device like the ones used in toy cars, which is a sophisticated technique that the Tsarnaevs couldn’t have devised on their own.

Let’s take these one at a time. First, the fact that pressure-cooker bombs have been used by other radical groups doesn’t prove anything. These bombs are popular in Pakistan and Afghanistan in part because they are cheap and easy to make, attributes which may well have attracted the Tsarnaevs, too. This may have also been what prompted the editors of al-Qaida’s online English-language magazine, Inspire, to run a how-to-make-a-pressure-cooker-bomb article called “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” After all, once something’s on the Internet, it’s easy enough for aspiring, untrained radicals to learn how to make a bomb in the kitchen of their mom.

As for the idea that a remote detonation device requires preternatural engineering wizardry, well, that’s just ridiculous. A remote control (or a radio-controlled car) is not a cyclotron. It is a fairly simple device that any non-technophobe with enough time on his hands can figure out. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an aspiring engineer whose father worked as an auto mechanic—this is not someone who was unfamiliar with tinkering. Just Google around and you’ll get pages and pages of results on how to hack a toy car’s radio control apparatus to operate any number of things. It does not take a genius to follow those instructions.

Is McCaul simply trying to score political points here? Politicizing matters of grave importance wouldn’t be unheard of in Washington. But McCaul isn’t the only one who’s asking these questions; some Democratic lawmakers are also discussing potential “persons of interest in the United States” and elsewhere who may have given the Tsarnaevs moral and material support. So I’ll be generous and give McCaul the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he’s just pontificating without having great information, which I suppose is bad enough.

Or maybe he does have evidence, lots of it. Maybe Michael McCaul is the first person Robert Mueller calls when his agents solve a new piece of the Tsarnaev puzzle. But then why is Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, telling Face the Nation that “it appears, at this point, based on the evidence, that it’s the two of them”—meaning the two Tsarnaev brothers acting alone? Why are the House and the Senate sending such mixed signals?

The answer, most likely, is that each poliitcal player who’s weighing in on the Tsarnaev investigation has some ulterior motive. (And perhaps that motive is as benign as “I enjoy appearing on television talk shows.”) And I think it’s also likely that none of them know for sure what happened. It’s certainly possible that the Tsarnaevs had help. It’s just as possible they didn’t. We just don’t know yet, and the reason we don’t know is because the FBI’s investigation is barely a week old. So rather than going on TV and declaring, as McCaul did, that “the experts,” whoever they are, “all agree that there is someone who did train these two individuals,” every politician needs to take a deep breath and let the FBI do its job.

Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.