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Napolitano: New immigration laws would have tracked Boston suspect

Proposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws would have made it easier to track one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings before the attack, the nation’s homeland security chief said Tuesday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee that one of the two suspected bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, initially escaped the notice of federal authorities on a six-month trip to Russia last year because his name was misspelled on his airline ticket.

But a bipartisan immigration plan unveiled last week would require all U.S. passports to be electronically readable, potentially avoiding such problems in the future, Napolitano said.

The bill “really does a good job of getting human error, to the extent it exists, out of the process,” she said.

Napolitano appeared before the judiciary panel Tuesday after canceling an appearance last Friday, when the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers was underway. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died early Friday after a shootout with police officers in Watertown, Mass., while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19 — who is recovering from serious injuries at a Boston hospital — was formally charged Monday with using a “weapon of mass destruction.”

About the Tsarnaev brothers

Since the bombings, the FBI has said that it investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possible link to terrorist groups at the request of Russian intelligence authorities. The FBI had closed its investigation into Tsarnaev by the time he returned to the United States last year, Napolitano said.

During the hearing, Napolitano also said a Saudi man questioned in the hours after the bombings was not on the U.S. terrorist watch list before the bombings, but was temporarily added to the list as he was questioned by law enforcement officials.

The Saudi man “was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Napolitano said. “He was never a subject. He was never even really a person of interest.” The man was removed from the terrorist watch list after he was questioned, she added.

Napolitano’s testimony Tuesday followed a testy exchange Monday between members of the judiciary panel when Democratic Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) chastised Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and other Republicans for tying last week’s Boston attack to the immigration debate.

Grassley said Tuesday that if the Tsarnaev brothers used the U.S. immigration system to assist their attacks, “it’s important to our ongoing discussion.”

The Boston bombings, along with this week’s announcement of an alleged Canadian terror ring, “are reminders that our immigration system is directly related to our sovereignty and national security matters,” Grassley said. “For example, we know that the 9/11 hijackers abused our immigration system by overstaying their student visas. We also know that people enter legally and stay below the radar.”

Napolitano told senators Tuesday that the immigration bill should not include $1.5 billion for new border fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. She said border officials have determined that fencing already exists in most of the areas that make sense.

In 2010, the Obama administration halted work on a troubled “virtual fence” project aimed at monitoring the 2,000-mile southern border.

“We would prefer having money not so designated so that we can look at technologies — they can be ground-based, air-based, what-have-you, manpower, other needs — that may be more fitting to actually prevent illegal flows across the southwest border,” Napolitano said. “So if we had our druthers, we would not so designate a fence fund.”

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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