Alex Witt   |  April 20, 2013

Can the FBI monitor social media accounts if there’s no evidence of criminal activity?

NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports from Boston on the potential civil liberties issues that could arise from authorities monitoring people with controversial social media accounts.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> news national investigative correspondent michael isikoff . i want to pick up on something we talked about last hour when i asked you whether officials think there were accomplices to this crime. we know that authorities stopped that train, the amtrak train that left from south station . i believe they stopped near westport, connecticut, yesterday. they were looking for accomplices. searched the train, let it go. end of story or is this still an avenue they're investigating?

>> well, look, it's clearly an ongoing investigation and we could learn more this afternoon when we're expecting we may see the first criminal charges in this case. what we're expecting is a criminal complaint and an affidavit, and one of the things to look for is to see whether tsarnaev, whether they say and others, which is the kind of language you often see in criminal charges . he acted with others to commit this crime. so that will give us some tip-off as to whether they suspect there were any other accomplices. right now we're not aware of any, and right now -- and late yesterday they were saying there was nobody else they were looking for. if they were aware of any particular suspects, that's a good indication they were not aware of any criminal suspects in the case late yesterday. now, on top of that -- so we're going to have the criminal charges today we hope, and that will give us some further information. there's also a lot more details we're learning about what was known about these suspects before the bombing itself. the fbi confirmed today that tamerlan tsarnaev, the older brother, now dead, had been investigated for possible islamic radical activity as long as -- as early as 2011 after the fbi got a report from the russian foreign intelligence service suspecting -- reporting suspected radical islamic jihadi activity. now, the fbi questioned him. they questioned friends. they questioned family members and found no evidence of a crime and there the matter lay. in january 2012 tsarnaev, this is the older one, flies to russia, spends six months there, returns, and then we understand that the fbi questioned him again after getting a follow-up report from russian intelligence . again, nothing came of it. there was no evidence of any criminal activity and the matter lay. but right after that tsarnaev sets up this youtube account in august of 2012 which is filled with radical jihadi postings and videos. again, that's not evidence of a crime. there's no grounds to arrest somebody for setting up a youtube based on what they post on their youtube account. but it does raise questions as far as last week when the fbi begins the boston marathon bombing investigation, did they come back to him as a potential suspect? did they look through their database about what they had on him, what they did not, and then when they got the photo on thursday night, were they able to -- were there efforts to match that photo up with whatever photos would have been in u.s. government databases both from the fbi and state department travel records because tsarnaev did take that six-month trip to russian in 2012 .

>> with your reporting, is there any indication as to the time when investigators became aware of this youtube account with these jihadist and sympathetic sort of sentiments being launched? you say that happened about three weeks after he returned in july of last year from being abroad for six months. did they know that then or --

>> this is the sort of --

>> i mean --

>> that's one of the questions -- that's one of the questions we don't know the answer to, and, remember, this raises all sorts of civil liberties issues. about how much monitoring the fbi should do of online social media accounts absent evidence of criminal activity . you get into very touchy questions there. so here you have somebody who was on their radar screen because russian intelligence had reported suspicions about him. they questioned him. they found no evidence of criminal activity . should they have continued to monitor him? should they have continued to look at whatever social media or youtube postings he makes? not easy questions to answer. but certainly ones that are going to get asked. now, we also have, by the way, the interview really revealing interview this morning that savannah guthrie did with the uncle of tsarnaev saying that somebody had brainwashed him, somebody had radicalized him. he was under the influence of others. now, the uncle did not illuminate who it was, it was not clear he knew, but that's a further indication that there were suspicions at least within his own family of outside incompetent influences.

>> all right. well, we may take a clip of savannah's interview later on this hour. in the meantime, i guess you can say all this hindsight is 20/20. thank you for your heshg lerculean effort talking over the traffic. but i guess considering the ghost town yesterday, it's a good thing. thanks, michael.