An early dissection of what federal authorities learned in past years about the accused perpetrators of last month's Boston Marathon bombings reveals how far the United States still has to go in sharing and making sense of leads on suspected terrorists, current and former lawmakers said on Thursday.
Russia warned the FBI of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev's possible ties to Islamic extremists more than two years before he and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, allegedly detonated two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston race, killing three people and injuring close to 300. The bureau set aside the Russian concerns after failing to turn up more incriminating data in the months that followed, and the CIA dismissed the same information later that year. Police and intelligence personnel have reportedly not connected the brothers to any extremist group outside the United States, despite Tamerlan's 2012 trip to Russia.
"He was on our radar screen, and then he was off," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R- Texas) said at the first congressional hearing on the attacks. Despite creation of the Homeland Security Department and numerous other steps since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve interagency security coordination, "the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed," he said.
Boston police received no notice of the Russian warnings until the older brother died in a shootout several days after the bombing, even through several city law enforcement personnel regularly collaborated with federal counterparts through a Joint Terrorism Task Force, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the committee.
Notice of the Russian concerns "absolutely" would have prompted a response by city authorities, Davis said. The official later voiced support for getting "as much information [on terrorism threats] out as quickly as possible," but he declined to speculate on whether the tip-off could have prevented the bombings.
Former panel chairman Joseph Lieberman, though, said the FBI's failure to provide its information on the Tsarnaevs "may be one of the most significant and painful takeaway lessons" from the attacks.
"The fact that neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security notified the local members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force is really a serious and aggravating omission," the recently retired Connecticut senator said in testimony.
Still, Lieberman said the federal government faces a significant hurdle in the sheer volume of data it must process and potentially act upon.
"A lot of the old stovepipes have come down," but "the larger problem for our Homeland Security personnel often may be in separating the wheat from the chaff,” Lieberman said. "Nobody bats 1,000 percent."
"Mistrust" between U.S. and Russian security services might be partly to blame for Washington's decision to set aside the Russian concerns, Lieberman said. Guidelines established by the U.S. Attorney General's Office might have prevented the "FBI from acting more aggressively or sharing the information with the state and local law enforcers," he added without elaborating on the rules.
Moscow's alert landed the older brother on one federal watchlist with hundreds of thousands of other names, but authorities took no further action in investigating his background prior to last month's attack.
The Homeland Security Committee's top Democrat said the United States must act "to fix and integrate" its numerous terrorism watchlists, but added that "no one agency or entity has the responsibility and the authority to scrub and integrate these vast systems that contain records on millions of people."
"Congress cannot continue to complain about the failure of the databases without giving the authority and the funding to one agency to fix these problems," panel Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) added in opening comments.
The Boston police chief said "cameras and other technical means" might help to further bolster terrorism defenses, but "there's no computer that's going to spit out a terrorist's name."
Government auditors have repeatedly flagged "formidable challenges" in how federal organizations process and exchange terrorism threat data with state and local counterparts. Difficulties in disseminating such information "in a timely, accurate, and useful manner" pose a "high risk" to U.S. counterterrorism operations, the congressional Government Accountability Office has said, citing a succession of reports from recent years to make its case.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month called for closer U.S.-Russian collaboration on counterterrorism matters, and FBI Director Robert Mueller reportedly discussed the Boston attacks and bilateral security cooperation with top law enforcement officials in Moscow this week.