Communication on Bomb Suspect’s Russia Trip ScrutinizedJustin Blum and Phil Mattingly
U.S. lawmakers are examining whether the Homeland Security Department failed to alert the FBI last year when one of the Boston bombing suspects boarded a plane for Russia.
The suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in an April 19 shootout with authorities, had been investigated by the FBI after a query by Russia in 2011 about his ties to radical Islam. The Federal Bureau of Investigation found nothing that raised alarm, though it could have alerted Russian authorities about the trip if it received the information.
Republican lawmakers said law enforcement agencies may not have shared information with each other, even after communications failures among government agencies were emphasized by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“This suspected radical Islamist is able to go back to Russia, to Dagestan, without the FBI or the CIA being made aware of it, even though Homeland Security was,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters today after lawmakers were briefed by law enforcement and intelligence officials. “That’s system failure almost 12 years after 9/11.”
Authorities say Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, were responsible for setting off two bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15. The attack killed three people and injured more than 260. Dzhokhar is charged with federal crimes including conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death.
Members of Congress say they want to know what happened when Tamerlan boarded a flight to Russia from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in January 2012.
Because of the FBI investigation, Tamerlan was listed in a government database called the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of Homeland Security. That system alerted Customs to the trip, according to two people briefed on the matter who asked not to be identified because the bombing investigation continues.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers at an April 23 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
At issue is what Customs and Border Protection officials did with that information. Ultimately, the FBI agent who investigated Tamerlan should have been alerted, the two people said. Federal agencies were examining whether that communication occurred, they said.
One of the people said a Homeland Security official who’s part of an FBI-led terrorism task force -- created after the 2001 attacks so that law enforcement and intelligence agencies could share information -- was informed. Lawmakers are looking into whether that official communicated the information to the FBI.
“The idea that DHS knows he is traveling overseas and the FBI doesn’t raises some serious concerns about the post 9/11 world,” Representative Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview. “Are we sharing the information properly and connecting the dots?”
McCaul said he plans to hold hearings on information sharing.
“I have concerns about what agencies knew what, and the fact that it wasn’t shared,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters at a briefing yesterday in Washington. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Anthony Bucci, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, declined to comment on the issue. Jason Pack, an FBI spokesman, referred questions on the communication to an April 19 bureau statement. The statement didn’t say whether the FBI was notified by Homeland Security.
Because the information about the Russia trip went to someone on the FBI-led terrorism task force, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who leads the Intelligence Committee, said she considers the bureau to have been alerted.
When Tamerlan returned to the U.S., the customs database didn’t trigger any alert because his name had been automatically removed after a set passage of time, lawmakers said.
Feinstein said authorities are now examining his activities in Russia.
Authorities want to know “what he did when he went to Dagestan,” she said. “Did he sit in his family’s house for six months? Was he out there talking to people?”
The FBI’s review of Tamerlan was triggered in March 2011 after a request from the Russian government, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. The review included interviews with family members, reviews of Tamerlan’s communications and Internet use and an interview with Tamerlan, the FBI has said.
The two U.S. officials cautioned that it’s unlikely the Russia trip would have raised an alarm with the FBI. A trip to Russia, home to his father and other family members, wouldn’t have been seen as suspect, the officials said.
The FBI could have told Russian authorities that they may want to monitor Tamerlan’s activities on the trip. Even without being alerted by the bureau, Russia also could have detected Tamerlan’s trip on its own when he entered the country.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Washington yesterday that the Obama administration will review protocols for anything the U.S. may have missed in advance of the Boston attack.
President Barack Obama “wants every agency involved in this to do a broad investigation into what happened, what we knew, what inspired and motivated these two individuals, and the steps that they took that led to the terrorist attacks in Boston a week ago Monday,” Carney said.