Republicans: Boston bombings reveal intel system still broken

Frustration is mounting among congressional Republicans who say the U.S. intelligence system remains broken more than a decade after authorities failed to stop Osama bin Laden. 

Reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers suspected in the Boston Marathon attack, was placed on a terrorism watch list at the request of the CIA a year before the bombings has heightened fears of an intelligence failure with parallels to 9/11.

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GOP lawmakers say the same information-sharing problems that hobbled the CIA and FBI in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks have resurfaced in the Tsarnaev case. 

“I have no idea who bears the blame. I just know the system is broken,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday after White House officials briefed senators on the investigation into the Boston attacks.

“The FBI and the CIA have great people, but you know [we are] going backwards in national security,” he said.

Russian intelligence officials separately warned the FBI and CIA about Tsarnaev’s 2011 trip to Russia, where he may have reached out to militant Islamic groups in Dagestan.

The fact that the CIA placed Tsarnaev on the watch list months after the FBI closed an investigation into the Russia trip is an example of “us going backward” in intelligence-sharing, Graham said.

“You have Russian intelligence services ... tell us we believe you have a radical Islamist in your midst. We do an interview ... [then] this suspected radical Islamist is able to go back to Russia, to Dagestan, without the FBI or CIA being made aware,” Graham said.

“That’s system failure, 12 years after 9/11.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it was revealed that the FBI and the CIA had a trove of intelligence about bin Laden’s plans but failed to connect the dots by sharing it. In response, lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul of the intelligence system that created the Department of Homeland Security and a director of national intelligence.

Republicans now fear those efforts were in vain, and that the country remains just as vulnerable to terrorist threats.

The frustration among lawmakers has been compounded by the conflicting reports from the Department of Homeland Security about what U.S. officials knew about Tsarnaev’s ties to Islamic militants.

“It’s not only the FBI, CIA, but you also have Homeland Security ... and that portion still needs to be explained,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations National Security subcommittee, told CNN Thursday.

Tsarnaev died after a shootout with federal agents and local police last Friday. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in the Boston attack, which killed three people and injured more than 200.

“Apparently there are ... different stories here, and that needs to be reconciled,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said after the surviving brother was charged. 

The 9/11 comparisons took on a new resonance Thursday when it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly planned to bomb Times Square in New York City after the attacks in Boston.

“[Dzhokhar] told the FBI apparently that he and his brother had ... built these additional explosives and we know they had the capacity to carry out the attacks,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Intelligence officials have defended their handling of the case. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday said “the dots were connected” between the Justice Department and the intelligence community on what was known about the Tsarnaev brothers before and after the attack.

“The rules were abided by, as best as I can tell at this point,” Clapper said.

But Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official, said there are “legitimate concerns” about the apparent breakdown between the CIA and the FBI on the tips from Russian intelligence.

“They were not talking the way they were supposed to,” said Fleitz, who is now director of the Langley Intelligence Group Network.

Once FBI made contact with Russian intelligence about their concerns over Tsarnaev’s 2011 trip, “all the intelligence agencies should have been notified,” Fleitz said.

“Someone [must have] dropped the ball” during the FBI’s investigation to force Moscow to go to the CIA with its concerns, he added.

Finding out why Russia went directly to the CIA after reaching out to FBI is critical to understanding if there was a breakdown in intelligence-sharing, according to former CIA director Michael Hayden.

“What was the path of the [Russian] information that was shared with the FBI” to U.S. intelligence agencies, Hayden asked. “To me, that is the lynchpin.”

Hayden and Fleitz said the same problems between federal law enforcement and the intelligence community surfaced after a failed al Qaeda-led plot to blow up an American airliner above Detroit in 2009. 

But Hayden warned the answer is not to simply “open the floodgates” on intelligence-sharing and reporting.

If the floodgates are opened, picking out the vital pieces of intelligence would become much harder, he said.

“You can [create] so much background noise ... that people will get overwhelmed” and miss red flags, Hayden said.

Congressional Democrats, for their part, are calling for patience as the FBI completes its investigation and builds the case against the younger Tsarnaev.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said lawmakers should show “some self-restraint” and not leap to conclusions.

“The facts change day to day” in the Boston case, Feinstein said, but federal investigations are “committed” to finding out whether law enforcement or intelligence agencies dropped the ball.

“I think [the FBI] did everything that they could have done under the circumstances,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former prosecutor, told The Hill Thursday.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he was satisfied with the FBI’s actions in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. 

“Unless specific information pops up, I am not critical of their actions,” he said.


— Jordy Yager and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.