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.

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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.”

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“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.