Amid a growing debate over anti-terror reforms in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the young man at the center of the investigation remained silent this weekend, with a wound in his neck preventing him from speaking, authorities said.
“We don’t know if we’ll ever be able to question the individual,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, in a Sunday appearance on ABC’s This Week. On the same day, Boston police listed the 19-year-old suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in critical but stable condition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and said late Sunday afternoon that interrogation had not begun. By Sunday night, law enforcement sources told multiple news outlets that he had begun to respond to questions by investigators mostly in writing.
Federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, meanwhile, revealed little new information over the weekend about what they have uncovered in the days since his capture. On Saturday, President Obama met for 90 minutes with his senior intelligence and law enforcement staff in the Situation Room, but White House officials gave no readout of the meeting beyond an announcement of Obama’s determination to “continue gathering intelligence to answer the remaining questions about this terrorist attack going forward.”
But the steady pace of the investigation did not delay a vigorous debate among politicians about the policy implications of the Boston attacks. On the Sunday political talk shows, elected federal leaders raised questions about the effectiveness of FBI efforts to protect the homeland, speculated about the motivations of the two brothers accused of terrorizing the city of Boston, and argued about the Department of Justice’s plans for interrogating the suspect.
In one exchange, New York Rep. Peter King, the former Republican chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, called for increased law enforcement focus on the American Muslim community. “The fact is that’s where the threat is coming from. When the FBI was after the Westies, they went to the Irish community. When they were after the mafia, they went to the Italian community,” he said on Fox News Sunday.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, cautioned King on the same program not to jump to conclusions before the investigation concludes. “With respect to whether we are doing enough in the Muslim community, I think we should take a look at that,” she said. “But I don’t think we need to go and develop some real disdain and hatred on television about it.” Authorities have so far declined to ascribe a motive for the attacks, though the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, allegedly posted radical Islamist-themed videos to YouTube, and traveled in to Russia for six months in 2012.
On Saturday, King joined three Republican Senators, Arizona’s John McCain, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte in calling for the surviving suspect to be treated as a potential enemy combatant for the purposes of interrogation, a move that would indefinitely delay Tsarnaev’s access to a lawyer and informing him of his constitutional right to remain silent. The Justice Department has announced that it will delay informing the suspect of those rights under the so-called “public safety exception,” that has been recognized by the courts for cases in which there may be immediate public danger.
“When the public safety exception expires and it will here soon, this man in my view should be designated as a potential enemy combatant,” said Graham in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. “Most Americans want to find out what he knew, who he associated with, does he know about terrorist organizations within or without the country or trying to hurt us? Does he know anything about a future attack? That comes from the law of war questioning.”
On the same show, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, downplayed the need to resort to enemy combatant status, which would be controversial to impose on an American citizen on U.S. soil. “We don’t need enemy combatant to get all the information we need out of him,” Schumer said. “A high value interrogation group composed of the FBI, CIA and anyone else can question him without a lawyer in a secured situation and find out whatever they need.”
Members of the House and Senate also raised concerns about the FBI’s investigations before the bombing, which included an interview with Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the request of the Russian government, who suspected he was involved with radical Islamists. Republican Texan Michael McCaul, the current chair of the House Homeland Security committee, sent a letter to the FBI over the weekend asking why Tamerlan had not raised concern with U.S. authorities. “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?” McCaul said on CNN’s State of the Union.
“The FBI or the system dropped the ball,” added Graham.
In Boston, Mayor Menino had a rosier view of the situation, now that the immediate threat seemed to be contained. “You know, everybody came together. The president talked to us everyday on the phone. President came here. The governor and I worked hand in hand,” Menino said. “I have to give the citizens of Boston a lot of credit. They really were vigilant. They all came out and supported us. And now the issue is how do we move forward? How do we use that good will and that American feeling to do a better job?”