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U.S. government begins intelligence review in Boston bombing case

Although President Obama and his top advisors say they believe counter-terrorism agencies did nothing wrong, an internal review will assess their role before the Boston Marathon bombings.

April 30, 2013|By Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors stop by the makeshift memorial in Copley Square dedicated to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Visitors stop by the makeshift memorial in Copley Square dedicated to the… (Darren McCollester / Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The CIA and departments of Justice and Homeland Security have begun a high-level internal review of whether intelligence was mishandled prior to the Boston Marathon bombings, though President Obama and his top advisors said they had seen nothing to suggest counter-terrorism agencies did anything wrong.

Obama said at a White House news conference that the review would seek to answer whether "additional things … could have been done" that "might have prevented" the two bombings that killed three people and injured more than 260 others on April 15.

"We want to go back and we want to review every step that was taken," Obama said. "We want to leave no stone unturned."

The House Homeland Security Committee has announced plans to hold hearings, and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said other committees would do so too. The Senate Homeland Security Committee is also expected to hold hearings.

Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that information about the older bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, wasn't properly shared. Asked at the news conference whether "our intelligence missed something" on the Boston bombers, Obama said flatly, "No."

"Based on what I've seen so far, the FBI performed its duties, the Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing," Obama said. "But this is hard stuff."

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, "believes that every agency involved in collecting and sharing information prior to the attack took all the appropriate steps," said his spokesman, Shawn Turner. "He also believes that it is prudent and appropriate for there to be an independent review of those steps to ensure that nothing was missed."

Clapper advised Congress in a memo that Charles McCullough III, chief inspector general for the 17 intelligence agencies, will coordinate the review. The scope is still being worked out, but officials expect that it will last about 90 days.

The FBI opened what is called a "foreign police cooperation case" and interviewed Tsarnaev in 2011 after Russian authorities warned that he might have ties to extremist groups. The FBI found no radical links and therefore had no basis to open a full investigation or obtain warrants to search Tsarnaev's computer, officials said. But based on the same information from the Russians, the CIA put Tsarnaev and his mother on a general terrorism watch list before he traveled to Russia in January 2012.

Tsarnaev, who authorities believe was the mastermind behind the bombings, was killed during a shootout with police in Boston on April 19. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured that night and is in custody at a federal prison medical facility in Massachusetts.

Some members of Congress have asked why U.S. customs officials did not alert the FBI when Tamerlan Tsarnaev left the United States for Russia last year, or again six months later when he landed back at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

In each case, a customs official on New York's Joint Terrorism Task Force received an alert about Tsarnaev's travel. There is no evidence officials passed it on to FBI partners on the task force, authorities have said.

Lawmakers also have wondered why customs officials didn't question Tsarnaev, given that the Russian government had told the FBI and CIA he might be a threat.

"In Boston, both the FBI and CIA were warned by the Russians about a radical Islamist in our midst," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. "Once enrolled in the system as a potential terror suspect, the older brother was able to travel back to Russia unimpeded by DHS or any of our intelligence agencies. Agencies … were unable to coordinate the information they received on the Boston terrorists."

U.S. officials have said that they didn't have enough credible information about Tsarnaev, a legal U.S. resident with full constitutional protections, to obtain warrants authorizing intrusive steps such as monitoring his Internet activity or telephone conversations.

The watch list he was placed on, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, contains about 745,000 names, officials said, and people can be placed on it based on a single, unverified tip.

Also Tuesday, the attorney for Tsarnaev's widow, Katherine Russell, said that the Massachusetts medical examiner's office had notified her that they were prepared to release his body. Russell has been staying with her family in Rhode Island and has been meeting with authorities.

"It is Katherine Russell's wish that his remains be released to the Tsarnaev family, and we will communicate her wishes to the proper authorities," according to a statement from attorney Amato A. DeLuca.

It was unclear to whom the body would be released. Although Tsarnaev has relatives in the Northeast, his parents are both in Moscow. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, his mother, said Saturday she was wary about visiting the U.S. because of law enforcement questions about her possible role in the bombings.

She has repeatedly said she knew nothing about the attacks and doubts her sons' involvement. Anzor Tsarnaev, the suspects' father, has recently been hospitalized with high blood pressure, she said.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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