FBI Handling of Russia Boston Bomber Tip Draws Scrutiny

The FBI, initially lauded for its quick identification of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, now is facing scrutiny from lawmakers about its handling of a 2011 Russian tip that might have averted the attack.

The Senate and House have scheduled hearings this week, and the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul of Texas, asked the FBI and other security agencies for all documents on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers linked to the bombing.

Senator Lindsey Graham told Bloomberg News yesterday that Tsarnaev was on a federal travel watchlist, which failed to pick up that he flew to Russia last year. Tsarnaev’s visit to his parents and relatives in Russia’s Dagestan and Chechnya regions, a hotbed of Islamist separatist movements, didn’t register because the airline misspelled his name, according to Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

House Speaker John Boehner said yesterday in an interview on Fox News that it’s “way too early” to draw conclusions about the FBI’s performance. He said congressional committees will help determine whether the bureau “dropped the ball or didn’t drop the ball.”

The FBI, at the request of Russia’s domestic intelligence service, conducted a three-month review of Tsarnaev’s activities in 2011, which included interviews with Tsarnaev and his family members, and a look into communications and Internet usage, according to two law-enforcement officials who asked not to be named because the bombing investigation is continuing.

FBI Investigation

The FBI investigated the Russian tip thoroughly “and did not find terrorist activity, domestic or foreign,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday. Subsequently, Russia didn’t cooperate with the FBI’s request to know if it had more specific information, according to Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Tsarnaev died after being run over by an SUV driven by his brother as he sought to escape a police manhunt in Watertown, a Boston suburb. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, 19, was charged yesterday by federal prosecutors with conspiring to use and using a weapon of mass destruction -- improvised pressure-cooker bombs -- to kill. The charge carries a possible death sentence.

The full House has scheduled a classified briefing today from Sean Joyce, deputy FBI director; Rand Beers, homeland security undersecretary; and Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. FBI Director Robert Mueller is scheduled to take questions behind closed doors from the Senate intelligence committee today, according to Republican Senator Dan Coats, a member of the panel.

Dig Deep

Coats, an Indiana Republican, said a “key question” is why the FBI “didn’t follow up on its 2011 investigation” of the elder brother sparked by the Russian query.

“We’ve really got to dig down deep and make sure we are not missing anything here” because it could happen again, Coats said in an interview. It’s possible that the FBI did everything it could at the time “but we still have a lot to learn on that.”

The House intelligence committee has scheduled a briefing for tomorrow, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be named because the session isn’t open to the public.

While the 2011 Russian inquiry and Tamerlan’s Tsarnaev’s subsequent behavior might have provided warning signs, the elder brother “remained at liberty in this country to conduct the Boston attack, and it took days to publicly identify him as a suspect,” according to the letter released yesterday from McCaul and Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who heads the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

‘Extremist Group’

When a foreign government presents “concerns that a resident of the United States may be involved with an extremist group” that should be “great cause for alarm,” Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican member of the intelligence committee, said in an interview. “I do have a lot of questions” about how the investigation was handled, she said.

Still, Tsarnaev, a legal permanent U.S. resident, did have an application for U.S. citizenship placed on hold after the FBI had questioned him. He had been arrested in 2009 on an assault and battery charge and wasn’t convicted, according to Stephanie Guyotte, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, district attorney.

Graham, who initially raised questions about the handling of the case, said yesterday the FBI did a “pretty good job” of looking into the initial lead. That request came from Russia’s FSB, the internal security agency.

‘Fine Line’

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said authorities have to walk “a fine line” that takes account of civil liberties.

“If you are in America and you have a legal status, you’re protected by American rights,” Boehner said. “It’s a fine line that they have to walk, and we’re going to have to make a determination how well they walked that line.”

The FBI’s investigation of the information from Russia followed the attorney general’s guidelines for probing possible terror suspects, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation. Those guidelines lay out what authorities are allowed to do to investigate suspects based on the level of evidence they have.

The FBI searched intelligence and criminal databases on the suspect and conducted interviews, the person said. The findings of those inquiries didn’t suggest anything suspicious. As a result, investigators couldn’t obtain warrants for wiretaps or take other investigative steps under the guidelines, the person said. The guidelines are designed to protect civil liberties.

Russia Trip

The current FBI-led investigation is paying close attention to a six-month trip Tsarnaev took to Russia in early 2012.

Tsarnaev was in the U.S. travel screening database known as the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, according to the two law-enforcement officials. The addition to the screening system is a routine occurrence when the FBI reviews individuals, the officials said, confirming that Tsarnaev’s name was misspelled on the Aeroflot passenger manifest for the flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Russia.

After the 2011 FBI review was closed, it is unlikely that his travel would have raised any red flags even if his name had been spelled correctly on the airline manifest, one of the law-enforcement officials said.

More Radical

Following his trip, Tsarnaev expressed more extreme Islamic views. In January, he disrupted a sermon at the Islamic Society of Boston, raising concerns among the congregation, Anwar Kazmi, a member of the group’s board of trustees, said in an April 21 interview. In his outburst, Tsarnaev objected to the idea that both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Prophet Muhammad could be mentioned in the same context as sources of inspiration, Kazmi said.

The FBI did a “very thorough” job responding to the foreign intelligence service and asked for further clarification about its information, Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said April 21 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

“Unfortunately, that intelligence service stopped cooperating,” he said.

Graham, at a news conference at the Capitol, said he was told by the FBI that Russia didn’t respond to its request for additional information. During a 45-minute phone call with an FBI official, Graham said he questioned why the bureau didn’t monitor Tsarnaev’s Internet activity because “it’s pretty clear this guy was expressing radical Islamic views.”

Limited Authority

Graham said he was told “the system is not as robust as you’d think.” The FBI official said the legal authority to monitor such activity is limited, absent information that corroborated the Russian tip, he said. Congress should study the episode to determine if the FBI should be given more legal authority for monitoring, he said.

If the FBI knew he was visiting jihadist Web sites in the last year, “they could have gotten the authority from a judge to do wiretaps or surveillance of his computer,” Collins said.

(For more on Boston, click on EXT2.)
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