Prior to the terrorist bombings last month in Boston, federal authorities did not share any information they had with law enforcement authorities in the city or state that Russian intelligence officials had provided some type of warning to the FBI about one of the alleged attackers and that the agency had opened an investigation into the individual, according to congressional testimony yesterday by Massachusetts officials.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the House Homeland Security Committee that he would have liked to have known about the Russian warning and subsequent investigation by the FBI into Tamerlan Tsarnayev, who was killed during a shootout with local police several days after the April 15 bombing, but cautioned that even if he had been provided the information he may have come to the same conclusion as the federal agency and closed the case.
Davis pointed out that mechanisms are in place in Boston for federal authorities to share top secret information with local law enforcement but said the threshold “bar” for when information about potential threats should be shared with state and local authorities needs to be reexamined, even if it involves the sharing of intelligence between nations.
“I believe that our relationship [with the FBI] has improved dramatically in the last 10 years but when you’re dealing with intelligence between nations, that’s still difficult to access,” Davis said. “And there are reasons for that and I understand them but when information is out there that affects the safety of my community I need to know that.”
Kurt Schwartz, the undersecretary within Executive Office of Public Safety and Security in Massachusetts, also said that neither the state’s fusion center, which brings together multiple state and federal agencies, nor the State Police received any warnings about Tsarnayev. He also said that the state’s representatives on a Joint Terrorism Task Force didn’t receive the warnings.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, stated at the outset of the hearing that questions have been raised about whether the nation’s intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots related to Tsarnayev, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, in becoming radicalized to the point of presenting a threat. He said the Russians had warned FBI that Tamerlan might travel outside the United States “to meet with extremists” and when he did travel to the Chechen region of Russia last year that the agency “was unaware.” He also noted that after being warned by the Russians, the CIA asked that Tamerlan be added to a terror watch list.
“This is the whole point of having fusion centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces is to share information and coordinate,” McCaul said following the comments by Davis and Schwartz. ”I used to work with Joint Terrorism Task Forces. But the idea that the Feds have this information and it’s not shared with the state and locals, defies why we created the Department of Homeland Security in the first place. And it’s very troubling to me.”
Davis and Schwartz both praised cooperation among federal, state and local officials in the wake of the bombings and the manhunt for the suspected bombers.
Former Senator Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) also testified at the hearing and said that based on what he has learned since the bombings makes him believe that the attack may have been preventable.
Rep. Benny Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member on the committee, said problems in the nation’s federal databases that allowed Tamerlan to reenter the country after his trip to Russia can’t be ignored.
“It’s time to recognize that we must develop a way to fix and integrate the various databases,” Thompson said. “We must also realize that in the federal government no one agency or entity has the responsibility or authority to scrub and integrate these vast systems that contain records on millions of people.”
Thompson said that Congress needs to provide the funding and authority to a federal agency to fix these database problems.
Thompson also pointed to one of the positive highlights of the bombing tragedy, the swift and able response of law enforcement, medical personnel and other first responders in the immediate aftermath of the two bombs that were detonated near the finish line of the race. He said that Congress continues to cut homeland security grant dollars to state and local agencies and asked Republicans on the committee to oppose these reductions.
Davis and Schwartz both cited DHS grants, in particularly the Urban Area Security Initiative grants, as vital to the training of first responders in Boston and Massachusetts for their quick and efficient reaction in the wake of the attacks. Schwartz said the death toll would have been higher had first responders not acted as quickly, with Davis noting that “people are alive” due to the various types of training DHS has provided to the Boston area.
“And further investment needs to be made in those things,” Davis said, otherwise gaps that are uncovered in training and exercises won’t be found. Schwartz lauded the investments the DHS has made to help close gaps in communications interoperability, with Davis noting that they were unaware of these shortcomings until they did the scenario-based training.
Davis later in the hearing also said he opposes a proposal by the DHS to consolidate its various homeland security grant programs, calling it “detrimental to the further security of our city.” In particular, he praised the UASI grants and said the program “should continue as is.”
Yesterday’s hearing also exposed a potential breakdown in communications between the Muslim community in the Boston area and local law enforcement authorities. Davis said a key takeaway is the need to “enlist the community better” to help uncover people that have been radicalized.
“We need to explain to the community that they have a responsibility to their community and to their nation and to what’s right to report the kind of activity that these brothers were involved in prior to the incident,” Davis said. “And I think that’s the first line of defense.”