Analysis: 'No Politics' Doesn't Mean 'No Accountability'

Kenshin Okubo/AP

“Who’s playing politics with the Boston bombing?” That question was posed by many journalists, including me, almost immediately after the marathon attack, when a few Washington politicians tried to exploit the tragedy.

Some Republicans said the terrorist strike should raise questions about immigration reform. Certain Democrats said “sequestration” spending cuts (and by inference, the GOP) would hurt Boston’s recovery. It was shameful.

But let’s be clear: “No politics” does not mean “no accountability.” Congress must launch, and the White House must accommodate, a full and fair review of what the U.S. government knew about the two Boston Marathon suspects and what, if anything could have been done to prevent it.

If mistakes were made, admit them – and learn from it.

Early reports suggest there is a dangerous lack of communication between federal agencies, which actually isn’t a surprise. A federal audit in January warned there is a “high risk” that the government’s information-sharing system would not prevent a terror attack, the Boston Globe reports.

We also know that the FBI conducted a preliminary inquiry into Tamerlan Tsarnaev after Russia’s state security warned the bureau in 2011 that he was an increasingly radical Islamist prepared to leave the United States to join terrorist groups in Dagestan. (Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected in the Boston attacks, died during a firefight with police.)

FBI agents checked government databases and interviewed Tsarnaev and family members. They concluded he was not a threat. Still, the FBI added Tsarnaev to a government list of suspicious individuals who have not been tied to terrorist groups.

Despite that precaution, the FBI failed to detect his travel to the Dagestan region of Russia for six months in 2012 because his name was misspelled wrong on an airline passenger list, according to reports. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said U.S. authorities knew of his departure, but not of his return.

In the latest wrinkle, the Washington Post reported today that the CIA wanted to have Tsarnaev placed on a high-threat counterterrorism watch list more than a year before the attacks, after Russia warned the intelligence agency about Tsarnaev.

What else don’t we know? Who else knew about Tsarnaev’s radicalization? When did they learn of it? What did they do about it? There are countless other questions that must be answered, just as each step leading to the 9/11 attacks were scrutinized.

The White House is understandably dubious about Republicans’ ability to investigate the attacks fairly. But voters will factor out partisanship, and they will punish Republicans if they overreach (remember Bill Clinton’s impeachment?). Setting aside hyper-partisans, the general public is level-headed.

Americans understand that the FBI and other U.S. agencies field thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of warnings similar to those issued about Tsarnaev.  They don’t expect their government to be perfect. But they will demand it be competent, transparent and accountable.

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