By Mike Lillis and Jeremy Herb - 04/24/13 12:03 AM EDT
The heads of the FBI and the Homeland Security Department (DHS) briefed House members on the Boston bombings Tuesday amid a wave of criticism that the agencies missed red flags that might have prevented the tragedy.
FBI Director Robert Mueller and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano have come under fire for their handling of the case, particularly their screening of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder suspect, who had been fingered by Russian intelligence for his possible ties to extremist groups.
Congressional leaders leaving Tuesday's briefing were largely silent about the details. But several leading voices on security issues made clear that they think the agencies have plenty of room for improvement.
"I can't comment on the specific information, but suffice it to say that the FBI has a lot of work to do – they've admitted as such – and that this investigation now, after the fact, has really just begun," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a sharp critic of the FBI since the bombings.
"That is the big question, and I think the question has not been answered," McCaul said. "I know that the FBI is working with the Russians to determine what the elder individual did while he was over there for six months."
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), a member of both the House Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, delivered a similar message. He called it a "detailed briefing," but was quick to note that his concerns about the nation's security procedures "are still there."
"It was a very thorough briefing, but not all of the questions have been answered," he said.
McCaul and King have sent a letter to Mueller, Napolitano and James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, suggesting the FBI's handling of Tsarnaev's trip to Russia was "an intelligence failure."
Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar – ethnic Chechens who had both lived in the United States for a number of years – are suspected of orchestrating the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 280 last Monday.
The elder Tsarnaev, a permanent resident of the United States who was seeking citizenship, was killed early Friday morning in a shootout with police outside Boston. The younger brother, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction to attack the country. He remains in a Boston hospital recovering from gunshot wounds suffered in several shootouts with police.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), another member of the Homeland Security Committee, said most lawmakers are praising the response of law enforcers to the tragedy.
If there were holes in the FBI's tracking of Tsarnaev after his return from Russia, Thompson said he's confident the agency will plug them.
"I think the policy that they followed will be looked at, and if a policy needs to be changed to say something else, I think the department will do it," Thompson said. "But the general tenor of what I heard is that the members have a lot of praise for professional manner in which all the federal, state and local worked together.
"Hearings over the next few weeks or months will probably make some suggestions, in terms of whether or not the resources necessary to make the changes will be there remains to be seen," he added.