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23 Apr, 2013 14:15

Senate grills FBI over Boston bombings intel failures

Senate grills FBI over Boston bombings intel failures

High-ranking FBI officials faced questioning by US lawmakers on Tuesday over whether they missed red flags surrounding slain Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The FBI officials briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed hearing about the investigation around the Boston Marathon bombings – which killed three people and injured 164 others – and the two suspects involved, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19.

After the briefing led by Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce concluded, senators said that there may have been a breakdown in communication that prevented authorities from tracking Tamerlan’s radicalization.

“I think there has been some stonewalls, and some stovepipes reconstructed, that were probably unintentional, but we've got to review that issue again, and make sure there is the free flow of information,” Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee said, according to Reuters.

Members of the U.S. intelligence community enter a briefing for the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill April 23, 2013 in Washington, DC (Win McNamee / Getty Images / AFP)

“I can't say the FBI dropped the ball. I don't see anybody yet that dropped the ball,” he added. "That may develop."

Other senators confirmed that tough questions were asked during the briefing.

"We had a full discussion back and forth over the process that's followed, and we need to keep at that, and we need to see if there are any loopholes in it, and that we fix those loopholes," said Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Legislators could not confirm an NBC report that the suspects’ motivations included the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The briefing was arranged following a wave of criticism from US lawmakers over the FBI’s potential mishandling of information. Senator Feinstein said legislators would have to “sort it out” following a briefing with security officials.

In 2011, Russian authorities asked the FBI to question Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who had legal permanent resident status in the US, over concerns he was linked to Islamic extremists. The FBI confirmed Friday that agents had interviewed Tsarnaev and other family members that year following Russia's request, but “did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign.”

A FBI agent enters the apartment building door of Alina Tsarnaeva on April 19, 2013 in West New York, New Jersey. (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

"There just wasn't anything there," said a federal law enforcement official who was briefed on the matter. "We ask that the government get back with us if they develop new information, but they did not. The Russians seemed satisfied, so we closed it."

At the time of his death, Tsarnaev’s application for citizenship was still under review as a result of that 2011 interview; he was still being investigated by federal law enforcement officials.

House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul wrote to the FBI and other officials, asking why Russia’s request to investigate Tsarnaev did not spur further action.

“If he was on the radar and they let him go, he's on the Russians' radar, why wasn't a flag put on him, some sort of customs flag?" the Republican lawmaker said on CNN's ‘State of the Union’ program.

Speaking with Fox on Monday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham revealed a misspelling in Tsarnaev’s name kept the FBI in the dark about the bombing suspect’s early 2012 trip to Russia.

FBI investigators search the shooting scene near the boat where bombing suspect was hiding from police on Franklin Street on April 20, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP)

“He went over to Russia, but apparently, when he got on the Aeroflot plane, they misspelled his name,” Graham said. “So it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia.” 

Graham further stated that it remained unclear whether Tsarnaev had intentionally misspelled his name in order to hide his trip from authorities.

After his 2011 FBI interview, Tsarnaev’s name was put into the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, which helps US officials screen individuals arriving to the country. Due to the misspelling, the suspected bomber was able to exit and reenter the US without setting off alarms.

In the wake of the twin bombings near the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, Tsarnaev was killed after a sprawling manhunt that culminated in a fierce shootout early Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested the following evening and hospitalized with serious injuries sustained during his attempts to evade capture.

On Monday, Dzhokhar was charged in his hospital with using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, and malicious destruction of property resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. Dzhokhar told investigators that he and his brother did not have co-conspirators in the bombing plot, the New York Times reported.

He further accused his brother of being the mastermind behind the attacks.