Lawmakers defend the FBI amid Russian allegations over Boston Marathon attack

Lawmakers who recently traveled to Russia are defending the FBI amid new accusations that the law enforcement agency could have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing.

Russian security officials told members of Congress late last month that they provided the FBI and the CIA with detailed information that might have thwarted the deadly assault. The intelligence about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one the bombing suspects, wasn’t acted upon, according to statements provided to The Washington Post over the weekend.

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The lawmakers were presented a letter that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) ostensibly sent to U.S. counterintelligence officials. Russian officials said they didn’t hear back from the U.S. on the matter.

The FBI has long maintained that it responded to the FSB and sought more information but didn’t hear back. The case was subsequently closed, according to the FBI.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who led the bipartisan congressional delegation of six lawmakers to Russia, told The Hill that the FBI didn’t have the information available to stop the terrorist attack. However, he says changes in the U.S.-Russia relationship could prevent another one.

“What could have stopped this is not something within the context of our current [U.S.-Russia] framework. But we need to change the overall relationship and that could have thwarted this attack, I have no doubt,” Rohrabacher said in an interview with The Hill.

There is some dispute among the delegation — that included Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (R-Iowa), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.), Bill Keating (D-Mass.) and Rohrabacher — over whether the FBI responded to the letter that the FSB sent to in March 2011.

The FSB letter focused on Tsarnaev, including details of his life, such as his cell phone number and family connections.

Keating said the Russian counterterror head said the FBI never responded.

Rohrabacher, who has spoken with a key intelligence official since his trip, said that the FBI did respond.

Asked if the FBI should be investigated, Rohrabacher said, “No … What we should be focusing on is what we’re going to do in the future.”

King is skeptical of the FBI’s assertions.

“[Russia] wanted to help. And they got the message by implication that the FBI was not interested in examining Tamerlan,” King told The Hill.

“The FBI has never been structured with an incentive to provide information to the public — and the FSB has an incentive to do that because they want to see strong relations, and they want to see the exchange of intelligence information so they can protect themselves from our universal enemy. Even though I know that they get to choose what they want to tell us, there was nothing they seemed to be reticent about, and I thought they were very forthcoming,” the Iowa lawmaker added.

A separate member on the trip disagreed, saying on background, “Once the KGB, always the KGB,” referring to the FSB’s predecessor.

High-ranking GOP lawmakers with knowledge of the intelligence available to the FBI and the contact with the FSB also doubted the FSB’s sincerity.

“I’d trust the FBI over the FSB. No offense to our Russian friends,” one lawmaker told The Hill on the condition of anonymity, adding, “Anybody can back date a letter.”

Asked about the controversy, Bachmann invoked the “trust but verify” adage. She pointed out that this was “the very first time the former KGB has ever met with a [congressional] delegation.”

Since the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Russian authorities and the FBI have been sharing much more information.

Had the current level of cooperation been taking place over the past few years, Keating said that it is “possible” that the attack could have been prevented:  “It’s an irresponsible statement for anyone to say that ‘Clearly this could have been averted.’ There’s too many intangibles.”

Still, Rohrabacher, who has worked on Russia matters since his days in the White House with former President Reagan at the height of the Cold War, said last week’s trip to Russia was productive.  

“This time, there was more dialogue and less vodka than any other time,” said Rohrabacher.

— Jordy Yager and Julian Pecquet contributed.