Amid disclosures that Russia tipped the FBI in 2011 that one of the Boston Marathon bombers had become a Muslim radical, Republican leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee plan to hold hearings to examine what the bureau and U.S. intelligence agencies might have done to thwart last week’s attack.
The committee’s chairman, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, and New York Rep. Peter King, a key subcommittee chairman, asserted that the elder of the two Chechen brothers implicated in the Boston attacks appeared to be the fifth person since Sept. 11, 2001, “to participate in terror attacks” after being interviewed by the FBI.
In a letter over the weekend, they demanded “all information possessed by the U.S. government” in advance of the bombings relating to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder brother who died in a police shootout early Saturday.
An FBI spokesman declined immediate comment on the letter, sent to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Across Capitol Hill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has asked FBI officials to appear before her panel on Tuesday to talk about the Russian tip about Tsarnaev.
The House Republican demands contrasted sharply with praise being heaped on the bureau and other law enforcement agencies for identifying and tracking Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, within days of the attacks, underscoring the seesaw public relations battle facing those agencies in the ebbs and flows of terrorism.
Details are still emerging about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activities prior to the attacks, and the bureau’s investigation is sure to be dissected closely, though the disclosures to date suggest that even a misspelled name could have foiled the bureau’s attempts to stay abreast.
In the latest grizzly revelation, the Boston Globe reported Monday that a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 25-year-old Brendan Mess, was among three young men whose throats were slit, apparently on the night of Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Those murders haven’t been solved.
The FBI acknowledged last week that an unidentified country – now known to be Russia – sought information from the bureau in 2011 about Tamerlan, based on the discovery that he was a follower of radical Islam and “a strong believer” who had changed radically since 2010. The foreign request also stated that he was preparing to travel to Russia to join underground groups.
FBI employees checked U.S. government databases in search of information, such as “derogatory telephone communications” or use of Internet sites that promote radical activity, as well as interviewing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but found no terrorism connection, a bureau statement said. After reporting the information to the foreign government (Russia), the FBI requested more specific information but got none back, it said.
A former federal prosecutor who led an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in western Texas, McCaul questioned in television interviews why a “customs flag” wasn’t posted on Tamerlan before he left the country in January 2012 for a six-month visit to Russia, where his parents live.
“I think the real question investigators have right now is, what was he doing for six months?” McCaul asked. “And when he comes back, one of the first things he does is puts up a YouTube site that has radical, jihadist rhetoric on that website. And of course, nine months later, he pulls off the largest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.”
However, another congressional Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said in a Fox News interview Monday that a senior FBI official advised him that the bureau couldn’t have tracked Tsarnaev’s six-month visit to Russia in 2012 because “they misspelled his name” on an Aeroflot flight manifest.
“So it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia,” Graham said he was told by an assistant FBI director. Left unclear was whether Tsarnaev misspelled his own name in an online booking or the airline did so.
McCaul and King pointed in their letter to four other home-grown terrorists whom the FBI interviewed before they participated in attacks, including Nidal Hasan, the disaffected Army major who shot and killed 13 people and wounded 42 others at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009; and Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who preached radical jihad to Hasan and others for years until he was killed in Yemen by a CIA drone in late 2011.
The others were Carlos Bledsoe, also known as Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who shot and killed one soldier and wounded another at a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., in 2010; and David Headley, an American who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for helping plan the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
In a report by former FBI Director William Webster, the bureau was criticized for numerous lapses that allowed Hasan to go forward with the Fort Hood incident.
But Brian Jenkins, a terrorist expert for the Rand Corp., said that since 2001 the FBI “has made a remarkable transformation to become an effective domestic intelligence agency,” thwarting more than 40 attempted attacks before last week’s bombing.
Only three attempts by homegrown terrorists got past the bureau, including a failed bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square, he said.
“We’re not going to bat 1.000,” he said. “The volume of material is enormous. All intelligence organizations and analysts live in dread of the unattended dot that should have been connected and was not.”