Five Questions in Congress About the Boston Bombings

In the wake of the attacks, Congress is grappling with why the plot went undetected and who shoulders the blame

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John Tlumacki / Boston Globe / Getty Images

Police officers draw their weapons after hearing a second explosion near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon in Boston, on April 15, 2013.

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, and the Boston bombings are no exception. The tragedy has triggered a wide-ranging debate about why the marathon plot went undetected, who shoulders the blame and how the security weaknesses the bombing highlight can be shored up. Here are five key questions lawmakers are wrestling with in the wake of the April 15 attacks:

Why didn’t authorities identify the Tsarnaev brothers as legitimate threats?
In some ways, the system worked as designed. Russia’s state security service, known as the FSB, first approached the FBI on March 4, 2011, after intercepting a pair of phone calls in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev discussed jihad. The Cambridge resident was planning a trip to the North Caucasus, the Russians said, which they feared “might accelerate his radicalization and lead to terrorist activities,” according to letters sent by the House Committee on Homeland Security to the heads of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The tip prompted the bureau to conduct an investigation that included background checks and personal interviews, and Tsarnaev was added to a federal database. But the spadework revealed nothing alarming, and with no further information from the Russians, the FBI dropped the matter after a three-month investigation.

At the same time, “there were some mistakes made in communication at the national level,” says Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. The FBI didn’t alert the CIA about the FSB tip; instead, Langley learned of Tsarnaev from the Russians more than six months later. When the shiftless boxer returned from the Muslim region of Dagestan on July 17, 2012, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston declined to warn domestic intelligence counterparts.

(PHOTOS: Images: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest)

None of these agencies, King says, appear to have notified police in Boston, where the brothers were lurking across the Charles River, or in New York City, where the pair, according to the younger sibling Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, may have planned to wreak a second wave of havoc in Manhattan’s Times Square. And nobody pieced together the trail the brothers left on the Internet, including songs and YouTube videos Tamerlan posted that venerate jihad. “He goes on the Internet for the whole world to see, to interact with radical Islamic websites,” fumed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in an interview with CBS News. “How do we miss that?”

Intelligence agencies have thousands of tips to sift through, of course. The federal threat database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), to which the CIA added Tamerlan, contains hundreds of thousands of names. It is probably inevitable that some people slip through the cracks. In this case, many members of Congress from both parties have praised the bureau for following a lead to the limits of its authority. “The FBI went out and interviewed him, did a background check,” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC. “There are people who are frankly of much greater suspicion than these brothers were at the time.”

“The reality is we just don’t have the resources to survey everyone that we get threat information on,” Schiff added. “It’s hard to say they made some error in judgment.”

Why didn’t federal agencies pool their intelligence?
The Sept. 11 attacks were enabled in part by the tendency of feuding federal agencies to hoard intelligence. Back then, this phenomenon, known as stovepiping, was the product of petty turf wars. More than a decade later, members of Congress say flawed information-sharing stymied law enforcement from zeroing in on the Tsarnaev brothers. “There still seems to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters last week. “That is troubling to me, that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001 that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies but also within the same agency in one case.”

(PHOTOS: Marathon Carnage: Explosions in Boston)

“Our greatest challenge since 9/11 has been sharing information and connecting the dots, and I am concerned yet again they were not connected,” Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement to TIME on Monday. Nobody is claiming that information was willfully withheld, but critical lawmakers cite several examples of poor collaboration. The FBI was informed of concerns about Tsarnaev six months before the CIA got the same tip. When Tsarnaev returned to the U.S. after spending six months in the Russian region of Dagestan, the Department of Homeland Security was “pinged,” according to McCaul, but the FBI appears to have been caught unawares. “The question is whether that information was shared. If it was not, this could have been a missed opportunity to reopen the case and develop new leads nine months before the attack,” McCaul told TIME.

To King, it is equally disconcerting that federal officials failed to warn local authorities in Boston and New York. “We have to get more of a presence in the Muslim community, and reach out and try to gather local intelligence,” King says. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have adjusted their approach in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, he adds. As a result, federal officials are less likely to snuff out plots by listening to overseas chatter. “It’s much more likely to come from the local level,” King says. “And that’s why it’s essential for the FBI to be working more closely with the local police.”

Should the marathon attack change the way we defend against terrorism?
The Boston bombing was the first successful coordinated plot to afflict the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attack. But in certain ways it was not a surprise. Law enforcement has long been concerned by the threat of improvised explosive devices wielded by homegrown jihadists. “We’ve been concerned about IEDs in the U.S. for a long time, because they are the weapons of choice for terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now we’ve seen it. Sometimes it takes something like this to happen to get people’s attention,” McCaul told TIME in an interview the week of the bombing. “We’ve been concerned about this style of attack for a very long time because honestly, it’s easy to do. You can make the pressure-cooker bomb for under a hundred bucks. It can blow a hole in a tank.”

So-called soft targets like the marathon are nearly impossible to safeguard against lone-wolf attacks, as Israeli counterterrorism have learned all too well. Once an assailant arrives at a site like the marathon — a chaotic 26-mile target where security is complicated by teeming crowds — a tragedy is tough to thwart. “This was our worst fear,” said Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during an interview with CBS News. “A homegrown terrorist, or a terrorist that was sent here to be ingrained within the community.”

“The landscape has changed. More and more, we’re going to be seeing that these attacks are coming locally,” King says. “Al-Qaeda changed its tactics four or five years ago. They realized it was very difficult to carry out an attack from overseas.” Now, he says, in many cases “they recruit people and train them overseas and send them back here, and it’s at their discretion when they’re going to carry out the attack.” It isn’t clear whether others had a hand in the plot, but McCaul, citing the “sophistication” of the device (which appears to have been triggered remotely by the controller of a toy car), suggested the brothers had a level of “tradecraft” that indicates they received bombmaking instruction at home or abroad.

Should we rethink the balance between privacy and security?
The tension between these two goals has been the subject of a long-running debate that was rekindled by the bloodshed in Copley Square. Libertarians were horrified that a major metropolitan area was locked down during the frenzied April 19 manhunt for the brothers, with private businesses and public transportation shuttered and citizens told to remain in their homes as law enforcement conducted door-to-door searches.

“The United States got a taste of martial law,” wrote former Congressman Ron Paul, the father of a libertarian movement gaining traction within the Republican Party. “The ostensible reason for the military-style takeover of parts of Boston was that the accused perpetrator of a horrific crime was on the loose. The Boston bombing provided the opportunity for the government to turn what should have been a police investigation into a military-style occupation of an American city. This unprecedented move should frighten us as much or more than the attack itself.”

Some influential lawmakers, such as Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, have decried the government’s increased domestic surveillance. Others see the security checkpoints littering everyday life — from TSA searches at the airport to the use of domestic drones to the lack of privacy on the Internet — as a Faustian bargain that erodes civil liberties while providing little more than security theater.

At the other end of the spectrum, defense hawks argue privacy concerns are secondary to security imperatives. “The main civil right is to stay alive,” says King, who wants to ratchet up the use of security cameras. “I don’t believe you have an expectation of privacy when you are in a public place.” To King, who has held controversial hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, the plot highlights the need to investigate the threat posed by homegrown jihadists. “We have to have more of an intelligence presence in the Muslim community, because that’s where the threat is going to come from,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of Muslims are good people — maybe higher than that. The fact is that the Islamist threat is going to come from the Islamic community, just as the Mafia threat came from the Italian community and the Westies came from the Irish community, the Ku Klux Klan from the white community, the Black Panthers from the black community.”

Surveillance cameras on Boston’s Boylston Street offered footage that proved instrumental in identifying the bombers. But lawmakers who want to find the sweet spot between privacy and security acknowledge that stepped-up surveillance efforts would be met with resistance. “There’s a Big Brother aspect,” says McCaul. “I understand the privacy concerns.”

What will the political fallout be?
In a bid to chip away at their opponents’ recent gains on national-security issues, Republicans have sought to portray the Boston attacks as part of the Obama Administration’s pattern of fecklessness on defense issues. “The ultimate blame, I think, is with the Administration,” Graham said. Predictably, Democrats have been more circumspect about the lessons of the attack. But the impact of the bombing on Capitol Hill will touch more than just national security.

Almost immediately, opponents of the Senate’s immigration bill pointed to Boston as a reason to hit pause on the bill’s progress, even as the architects of the bill insisted their overhaul would tighten security. “Our bill actually strengthens security,” said New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, noting that new redundancies would have caught a discrepancy in the spelling of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name that allowed him to return to the U.S. undetected by most federal agencies. “The events in Boston, if anything, should importune us to leave the status quo and go to a proposal like ours.”

But the array of hearings that the House will hold to review the attacks starting in early May (similar sessions have been called for in the Senate) will clog an already cluttered congressional docket. Meanwhile, members who have expressed support for immigration reform have wavered in the wake of the bombing as they weigh the politics of national security against their own political goals. Take Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential contender and an early proponent of an immigration overhaul. Within a week of the attacks, the Kentuckian distributed a letter linking the fate of the bill to national-security concerns.

“We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system,” he wrote. “Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”*

The bombing has raised many legitimate questions about whether the intelligence community could have done better, and whether changes are needed. But it also offers leery lawmakers a ready-made excuse to derail legislation they don’t like.

*Update: Three days before Sen. Paul sent his letter, Raman Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya said, “Any attempt to make a link between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, is in vain. They grew up in the US, their views and beliefs were formed there. The roots of evil must be searched for in America.” While the brothers’ father is Chechen, the boys lived in Dagestan, and before that Kyrgyzstan, before moving to the United States. Dzhokhar arrived to the U.S with his parents in 2002, just before he turned 10, and Tamerlan arrived on his own around 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal.



The NRA lunatics  advocate shooting anyone with a backpack that shows up at any sporting event as a matter of self defense. And now they got ads promoting guns for children. The voice of the biggest threat to American security.


I think that the Marathon Bombings should promote more leniency in gun laws, not stricter gun laws. Look at countries where guns laws are stricter, or where citizens cannot own guns at all. There are a lot of bombings - and the citizens are victimized even more because they cannot legally defend themselves by owning guns legally. The criminals don't need permission to have guns, or make bombs. It would be literally impossible to ban all bomb-making materials. So what do you have? A society where the citizens cannot protect themselves from the criminals. The criminals don't care about the law and do whatever they want to the citizenry, because they know the citizens cannot legally arm themselves against them. This gives the criminals (terrorists) free reign until they run into officers of the law. Usually by the time they do, if they do, the damage has already been done. Criminals think twice before they victimize someone, or a family, if they think there may be potent resistance. The easy kill is always much more attractive to them.

Call me psychic, but I bet that Texas will be the LAST place that lone-wolf terrorists ever attack.  Think about it.  


The Bombers are to blame.  The Russians didn't tell the US until AFTER the bombing that they intercepted the bombers calls so that info is useless to a REAL investigation.  Rand Paul is ridiculous b/c the boys were very young when they came, about 6 and 13.  Guess we should have tailed them anyway.

It's remarkable to me how the Gop completely ignores Mass Shootings and gets hysterical about two men who might go NY if they live thru the evening.  One of them did not.  The guy who was car jacked said when they were talking, they mentioned Manhattan a lot.  So that goes to they were definitely going to attack NY?  A lot of misinformation being spread by the Gop & the Press.  I trust Pete Wilson only!


This is a terrible thing to happen - but let not sell our freedom for  a tiny piece of security.

a message on behalf of the team at


These all seem like the wrong questions. I never thought I would agree with anything Ron Paul had to say, but he's right when he states the imposition of marshall law should scare US citizens, maybe not as much as the bombing itself, but at least as much. A military attitude to this problem seems the wrong approach to take.  They are trained to see an enemy and think on ways to eradicate that enemy.  This is necessary, but should not define policy.  Where are the cooler heads that are supposed to prevail in times of crisis?  Where are the voices asking the US government to begin taking a good long look at the history that brought it here so that more reasonable solutions can be found than the installation of greater surveillance measures, and discussions on how to guard against a possible increase in attacks on soft targets?  I go on a bit more at length on these issues here:

Please feel free to read and disagree.


Get real. The ONLY thing Congress "grapples" with is how to best serve their special interest masters and line their own pockets with campaign donations and office benefits. They spend the majority of their time, if not at "home", then raising re election bribes.


Didn't you mean to say: "Five Enduring Questions" Alex...?


So where was all this concern and outrage after 9/11? And when do the hearings looking into the West fertilizer plant disaster start? Will King, Graham & Co. be looking into the failures of our regulatory policies?

This is just predictable partisan ankle-biting from the right. The bombing happened on Obama's watch. Quelle horreur! Never mind the fact that law enforcement, both local and federal, did their jobs and got the guys, that one is dead and the other in custody. Oh, no. Now it's time for King to launch yet another crusade against Muslims and for Senator Pittypat to start going through everyone's browser history. And for Louie Gohmert to start fantasizing about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the cabinet.

Spare me.

Do we need to regularly and thoroughly vet our intelligence/law enforcement agencies to make sure they're doing their jobs? Of course. And ensuring greater cooperation among them is always good. But let's do it without the panic and the grandstanding and the pearl-clutching, m'kay?

Oh, and before I forget … BENGHAZI!!!


There's a greater recognition being given to reporters such as John Miller of CBS, who have the knowledge and background to report on the Boston Bombing. He doesn't resort to speculation, but only relates the facts........unlike this article which is primarily giving a platform to Republicans with a political agenda.


I live in the Boston area and was in Bostong the day the "lock-down." All I can say, unless you were in Watertown and  in the neighborhood/s of the actual search it certainly did not resemble a military occupation. I was in the North End around lunch time and you would have been hard pressed to know anything was even amiss in the city.


Two people acting acting in concert, who choose not to discuss the details of their plans with outsiders, are largely going to be limited by their own luck and competence, unless we drastically change the way we view liberty in the U.S.  I don't think we want to live in an America where Vladimir Putin, for example, can use his intelligence agencies to manipulate ours into harassing his enemies for him.  I don't think we want the FBI visiting people every time they yell at a cleric in a mosque or search for something on the Internet that makes somebody in law enforcement nervous.  I just don't see Boston as a huge failure of the system.  Unless you see every crime as a systemic failure, it doesn't make sense.


It's utterly simple. An easily preventable explosion in Texas takes 15 lives. 32,000 people are killed by guns annually. Similar numbers are lost to car crashes. 4500 die yearly in workplace accidents. Terrorism is a terrible thing but to insist that we must do everything possible to insure that it NEVER happens is to invite the absolute antithesis of the Freedom we keep valiantly bragging about. No one is a criminal until they've committed a crime. That's the number one fact that all our rights hang upon.


Thanks, Alex. We can't have perfect protection unless one aims for a police state like North Korea or the USSR. Nevertheless, each of the points offers serious debate, but there's an overall pattern that's not so good ...and you hinted at it in a roundabout way....

"Predictably, Democrats have been more circumspect about the lessons of the attack."

"But it also offers leery lawmakers a ready-made excuse to derail legislation they don’t like." (and why don't the R's like it?)

...because a clear majority of the critics you quoted are Republicans. Today's polarized party politics bias the criticism (no thanks to the Tea Party and previous Bush Neo-Cons). In a past era like the '70's when fellow Republicans sealed Nixon's fate, this was not an issue. Now it is. During Bush's terms, where were the R's criticisms of Bush's flawed policies equal to their condemnation of anything Obama does? Why didn't their majority stop the Iraqi war? And yes, where were the D's too? (includes Hillary but not Obama). I offer plenty of skepticism of R critiques until they remove their prejudice against Obama (McConnell and the pre-planned one-term presidency obstruction, etc.). But thanks for your insights; wish the R's also had better insights, alas.


Death from neglect doesn't generate media frenzy. 


@PaulDirks It also ignores our history.  We have had bombings here since the 1800s and up until 911 we managed to deal with them without losing rights.

Here is a list of some of the worst bombings in the U.S. dating to the 1800s, including some famous attempts that failed:

— April 15, 2013: Two bombs explode in the packed streets near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing two people and injuring more than 80.

— Jan. 17, 2011: A backpack bomb is placed along a Martin Luther King Day parade route in Spokane, Wash., meant to kill and injure participants in a civil rights march, but is found and disabled before it can explode. White supremacist Kevin Harpham is convicted and sentenced to 32 years in federal prison.

— May 1, 2010: Pakistani immigrant Faisal Shahzad leaves an explosives-laden SUV in New York's Times Square, hoping to detonate it on a busy night. Street vendors spot smoke coming from the vehicle and the bomb is disabled. Shahzad is arrested as he tries to leave the country and is sentenced to life in prison.

— Dec. 25, 2009: The so-called "underwear bomber," Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is subdued by passengers and crew after trying to blow up an airliner heading from Paris to Detroit using explosives hidden in his undergarments. He's sentenced to life in prison.

— Sept. 11, 2001: Four commercial jets are hijacked by 19 al-Qaida militants and used as suicide bombs, bringing down the two towers of New York City's World Trade Center and crashing into the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people are killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

— Jan 22, 1998: Theodore Kaczynski pleads guilty in Sacramento, Calif., to being the Unabomber in return for a sentence of life in prison without parole. He's locked up in the federal Supermax prison in Colorado for killing three people and injuring 23 during a nationwide bombing spree between 1978 and 1995.

— Jan. 20, 1998: A bombing at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., kills one guard and injures a nurse. Eric Robert Rudolph is suspected in the case.

— July 27, 1996: A bomb explodes at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Summer Games, killing two people and injuring more than 100. Eric Robert Rudolph is arrested in 2003. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to life in prison.

— April 19, 1995: A car bomb parked outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City kills 168 people and injures more than 500. It is the deadliest U.S. bombing in 75 years. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols are convicted. McVeigh is executed in 2001 and Nichols is sentenced to life in prison.

— Feb. 26, 1993: A bomb in a van explodes in the underground World Trade Center garage in New York City, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. Five Muslims are eventually convicted of the crime.

— Nov. 7, 1983: A bomb blows a hole in a wall outside the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington. No one is hurt. Two leftist radicals plead guilty.

— May 16, 1981: A bomb explodes in a men's bathroom at the Pan Am terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport, killing a man. A group calling itself the Puerto Rican Armed Resistance claims responsibility. No arrests are made.

— Dec. 29, 1975: A bomb hidden in a locker explodes at the TWA terminal at New York's LaGuardia Airport, killing 11 people and injuring 75. Palestinian, Puerto Rican and Croatian groups are suspected, but no arrests are made.

— Jan. 29, 1975: The U.S. State Department building in Washington, D.C., is bombed by the Weather Underground. No one is killed.

— Jan. 24, 1975: A bomb goes off at historic Fraunces Tavern in New York City, killing four people. It was one of 49 bombings attributed to the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN between 1974 and 1977 in New York.

— Jan. 27, 1972: A bomb wrecks the New York City office of impresario Sol Hurok, who had been booking Soviet artists. One person is killed and nine are injured, Hurok among them. A caller claiming to represent Soviet Jews claims responsibility, but no arrests are made.

— March 1, 1971: The Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., is bombed by the Weather Underground. No one is killed.

— March 6, 1970: Three members of the revolutionary Weather Underground accidentally blow themselves up in their townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village while making bombs.

— 1951-56: George Metesky, a former Consolidated Edison employee with a grudge against the company, sets off a series of blasts at New York landmarks, including Grand Central station and Radio City Music Hall. No one is killed. Known as The Mad Bomber, Metesky spends 16 years in a mental hospital.

— May 18, 1927: 45 people — 38 of them children — are killed when a school district treasurer, Andrew Kehoe, lines the Bath Consolidated School near Lansing, Mich., with hundreds of pounds of dynamite, and blows it up. Investigators say Kehoe, who also died in the blast, thought he would lose his farm because he couldn't pay property taxes used to build the school.

— Sept. 16, 1920: A bomb explodes in New York City's Wall Street area, killing 40 and injuring hundreds. Authorities conclude it was the work of "anarchists" and come up with a list of suspects, but all flee to Russia.

— Oct. 1, 1910: The Los Angeles Times building is dynamited during a labor dispute, killing 20 people. Two leaders of the ironworkers union plead guilty.

— May 4, 1886: A bomb blast during a labor rally at Chicago's Haymarket Square kills 11 people, including seven police officers, and injures more than 100. Eight "anarchists" are tried for inciting riot. Four are hanged, one commits suicide and three win pardons after seven years in prison.

Read more:


@roknsteve good in depth journalism to dig out lies from our leaders claiming WMD get no ratings but war coverage does and that means profit.  money is our only measure of value now.  that and the golden rule that says he with most gold makes the rules.  i do not live in the america that cured polio, the america i grew up in.


@gysgt213 @PaulDirks  but but these weren't jihadist bombings and we all know they are magically different.