Boston police weren’t told of Russian warning on brother

Former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) spoke before the House Committee on Homeland Security on the Boston bombings. Lieberman criticized U.S. agencies for not preventing the attacks. (The Washington Post)

Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis III said Thursday that his department was unaware that the Russian security service sent a query to the FBI about one of two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing long before the attack.

When asked whether he would have given the suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a second look had he known, Davis told a congressional committee: “We would certainly look at the information. We would certainly talk to the individual.”

Davis, testifying at the first congressional hearing into the April 15 bombing, said the FBI had interviewed Tsarnaev after the Russian warning and closed out the case without finding any derogatory information.

“I can’t say that I would have come to a different conclusion based upon the information that was known at that particular time,” said Davis, adding that he should have known of information that “affects the safety of my community.”

The Boston police chief also said his department was unaware of a later notice that Tsarnaev had spent six months last year in Dagestan, the site of an Islamist insurgency in southern Russia. Information about his travel was sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, Davis said, but the officer did not notify four Boston police officers assigned to the group.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the hearing as the first in a series that will examine what U.S. agencies knew about the suspects in the months and years before the bombing and whether there were systemic failures in the run-up to the two blasts. Three people were killed in the bombing and more than 260 injured.

Tsarnaev, 26, was killed during a confrontation with police four days after the bombings. His brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, is recovering from gunshot wounds in a Massachusetts prison medical facility. They are also suspected in the fatal shooting of Sean Collier, an MIT campus police officer, before the older brother was killed.

Police in Worcester, Mass., said in a statement Thursday that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was finally buried after a week-long search for a cemetery willing to provide a plot. The location was not revealed because of threats that his grave would be desecrated.

“I’m just very happy that we can move on to other things,” Davis said. “I’d personally like it if we never had to mention these names again.”

The hearing provided little new information about the plot, the Tsarnaev brothers or any foreign contacts they might have had. But it seemed clear that the actions of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security will be subject to continued and sometimes-hostile scrutiny by lawmakers in coming months that will echo the recriminations that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said: “Once again, it has taken a tragedy to reveal problems in our vast, varied and numerous databases. . . . We must develop a way to fix and and integrate these various databases.”

While the FBI has said there was no advance word of the bomb plot, an intelligence report prepared before the bombing said the marathon finish line was an “area of increased vulnerability” and that extremists could use “small-scale bombings” to target the event, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mapping the hunt for Boston Marathon suspects

The April 10 report was prepared by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which sends information to local police departments and is partly funded by the Department of Homeland Security. But the report said there was “no credible, specific information indicating an imminent threat.”

The FBI in Boston put out a statement Thursday evening noting that state and local members of Joint Terrorism Task Forces “are responsible for maintaining awareness of possible threats to their respective jurisdictions” and have access to Guardian, a system that houses information about threats and suspicious activity. The statement noted that Boston police had been provided with instruction on Guardian to allow for “proactively reviewing and establishing customized searches.”

In his testimony, Davis credited surveillance cameras on businesses near the sites of the blasts with providing critical evidence that led to identifying the suspects. He said he supported an enhanced ability to monitor public places, but he did not endorse actions that “move Boston and our nation into a police-state mentality, with surveillance cameras attached to every light pole in the city.”

Former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who headed the Senate Homeland Security Committee until his retirement last year, told the panel that Congress and the executive branch need to examine whether Justice Department guidelines on the conduct of investigations constrained the FBI or stopped an assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev by investigators.

Asked whether the FBI should have gone to Tsarnaev’s mosque as part of its investigation, Lieberman said, “I don’t know exactly what happened here, but this is why I raise the question about the Department of Justice guidelines for the FBI.”

He said questioning friends, neighbors and “people in their house of worship” did not appear to him to violate any civil rights.

But Michael German, a former FBI agent and a senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the guidelines would not have impeded the assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was not a religious leader requiring permission from headquarters. Nor, he said, was there any limit on how long the assessment could last; assessments can be extended every 30 days with the permission of a supervisor.­

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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