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House Homeland Security Committee Plans Hearing on Boston Attack

Key question is how information was tracked and handled after warnings by Russian authorities.

The House Homeland Security Committee plans to hold the first congressional hearing next week examining the Boston Marathon terrorist attack and what it says about the state of the nation’s post-Sept. 11 security infrastructure.

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, has launched an investigation into the April 15 bombings and is seeking detailed information about potential security breakdowns from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Clapper has also launched his own investigation.

Other congressional committees could follow suit as a wide chorus of members of Congress continue to ask questions about what information federal law enforcement had in advance of the attacks about the bombing suspects and the potential for the elder, deceased brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, to have become a radicalized Islamist with a proclivity for violence or terrorism. The key question for authorities is how this information was tracked and handled after warnings by Russian authorities and whether U.S. security agencies sufficiently followed up in their investigations and shared information on any leads.

The House Homeland Security Committee plans to start what is likely to be the first in a series of hearings probing the case May 9.

In the Senate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for a Homeland Security hearing, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has called for a special select committee to look into the issue. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Del., suggested last week that the panel could hold a joint hearing with other committees of jurisdiction with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on lessons learned from the attack.

Carper issued a joint statement Tuesday with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the panel’s ranking member, saying they continue to monitor developments and have requested “additional information regarding events prior to the bombing and the federal government’s response to the attack from the Department of Homeland Security.”

The Senate Homeland Security Committee leaders said they will need time to review the information once it is received, but “fully expect the committee to hold hearings on this terrorist attack” and intend to get to the bottom of any improvements that need to be made.

“It is critical that we conduct a proper examination of the actions of the federal government, including the Department of Homeland Security, and its interactions with state and local government partners, so that we as a nation are better able to anticipate, prevent, or if necessary respond to, the next terrorist threat,” they said in the statement.

Demonstrating how ugly the high-profile domestic attack could become for the Obama administration, President Obama on Tuesday attempted to shoot down criticisms from Graham, who has argued that the Boston attacks, along with last year's Benghazi attacks, are another example of national security heading backward.

“No, Mr. Graham is not right on this issue,” Obama said when asked about it in a press conference Tuesday.

Graham later defended his assessment of U.S. security in an interview on CNN.

“I think our systems are degrading. I stand by that statement. It’s not like I relish saying that, it’s just that I think that it’s true,” Graham said. “This is stove-piping.… Our systems are failing in my view.”

The House Homeland Security Committee probe is taking a deep dive into how law enforcement responded to apparent warnings from the Russian internal security service that Tamerlan Tsarnaev might travel to the Caucasus, which they warned might accelerate radicalization and lead to terrorism. The committee is also seeking details about how law enforcement conducted its investigation, communicated with each other, and used security databases.

In letters sent to the DNI, DHS, and FBI over the weekend, McCaul and the panel’s subcommittee chairs made clear they want detailed answers about how the investigation into the elder Tsarnaev was conducted and how that information was handled.

But the crux of the investigation appears to really be about whether the post-Sept. 11 efforts to break down barriers within and among law-enforcement organizations to pool resources have worked as intended, or whether their potential failures led to missed signs that could have helped prevent the attack.

“Over 11 years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, in which failures to share information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies played a role, it is crucial that we know whether the same problems exist today,” wrote McCaul and the Republican leaders in the letters to the agencies requesting information.

The Homeland Security Committee has requested classified and unclassified responses by May 20 from law-enforcement officials.