WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano says her agency was alerted at the time a suspect in the Boston bombings travelled to Russia, contradicting earlier reports that the FBI’s investigation missed the trip because of a spelling error.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Napolitano told an astonished Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing Tuesday on a massive immigration bill.
“By the time (the suspect) returned, all investigations, the matter, had been closed,” Napolitano said.
Lawmakers are now raising concerns that the fledgling Homeland Security Department, created after the September 11 terrorist attacks to prevent another assault, is repeating past intelligence mistakes and failed to inform the FBI of the suspect’s travel.
“This is troubling to me,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), after a closed door Senate Intelligence Committee briefing later that day with federal law enforcement officials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reported earlier this week that FBI officials missed the trip last year because the name of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, now deceased, was misspelled in the computer system.
After Napolitano’s revelation, Graham challenged whether law enforcement officials were also correct in their statements that no further terrorist plots were being planned by Tsarnaev or his brother, now in custody and charged with the bombing.
“When they say there is no broader plot here, I just don’t know how in the world we know that at this early stage,” Graham said.
“I would imagine he’s going to tell us his brother was the bad guy and he was a bit player and this wasn’t that big a deal. I would be shocked if that’s not the information received from the suspect,” Graham said.
The FBI learned in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer” and that he was planning to leave the U.S. to join force with unnamed “underground groups,” the FBI acknowledged in a statement.
The Russian government says it alerted the FBI numerous times about its concerns with the elder deceased brother, whose family sought asylum in the U.S. a decade ago after moving from the Kyrgyzstan region.
The FBI says their initial investigation included a check of U.S. government databases, “derogatory” telephone calls, contact with websites promoting radical activity, travel and education history.
The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011, the agency said.
The fact that the FBI did not learn about or investigate Tsarnaev’s travel for six months last year to Chechnya and Dagestan or whether the bombing suspect met with militant groups there, has many lawmakers unnerved.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he plans to question law enforcement officials in closed-door briefings as to how and when the suspects became radicalized and other details about the FBI’s initial investigation, as well as the ongoing terrorist threat in southern Russia.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a shoot-out with police days after the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured alive but wounded after a massive manhunt.
The tragedy overshadowed Senate hearings that began Friday on a massive immigration reform bill and forced Napolitano to initially cancel her appearance then to focus on the ongoing manhunt.
Some Republicans have also requested that the terrorists’ path to citizenship be examined for possible flaws in the current immigration system, prompting criticism from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that their concern was a ploy to indefinitely delay the immigration bill.
At least one key Democrat is now siding with Republicans. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the hearing that “for some reason” the Homeland Security Department had denied citizenship to Tamerlan, who was instead granted permanent residency status while Dzhokhar recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“We need to see if there are any loopholes in it, then we fix those loopholes,” Feinstein said.
Despite the terrorist attack that has consumed the work of federal law enforcement efforts, Napolitano told the Senate committee she found time to read the entire 844-page bill crafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight” lawmakers to reform the immigration system.
Napolitano testified in favor of the bill and also approved of Schumer’s call for the use of more drones along the border. As for the $1.5 billion that would be set aside for fence construction, Napolitano asked for leniency to use the funds for other security measures that prompted nods of approval from the panel.