Skip to main content

Heat is on FBI over handling of bombing suspect

By Jim Acosta. Ted Barrett and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 12:02 PM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Boston Marathon bombings suspect, was photographed for a university graduate magazine story in April 2009. The photographer did not want to be named for this story. According to the published article, he hoped to be selected for the U.S. Olympic boxing team and become a naturalized American. Authorities say an overnight shootout with police left him dead on Friday, April 19. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/boston-bombings-galleries/index.html'>See all photography related to the Boston bombings.</a> Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Boston Marathon bombings suspect, was photographed for a university graduate magazine story in April 2009. The photographer did not want to be named for this story. According to the published article, he hoped to be selected for the U.S. Olympic boxing team and become a naturalized American. Authorities say an overnight shootout with police left him dead on Friday, April 19. See all photography related to the Boston bombings.
HIDE CAPTION
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
Suspect 1 was boxer, photo essay subject
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former official: FBI uses "triage" approach in checking out possible terror links
  • Sen. Feinstein says the intelligence committee will hold a hearing as soon as Tuesday
  • The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev before he traveled to Russia last year
  • Some legislators question why Tsarnaev wasn't questioned again on his return

Washington (CNN) -- When Russia asked the FBI in 2011 to check out Tamerlan Tsarnaev because of his shift toward increasing Islamic extremism, the bureau interviewed him and his family as part of a review that found no ties to terrorism.

Two years later, Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother allegedly set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon that killed three people, then killed a university police officer and sparked a manhunt that paralyzed the city last week.

Now members of Congress want to know how someone who was brought to the attention of authorities and who exhibited increasingly radical leanings never came under further monitoring or questioning.

Graham backs off FBI criticism over bombing suspect

Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced Monday that the Senate Intelligence Committee she heads will look into the FBI's handling of Tsarnaev.

Did the FBI drop the ball?
Boston bombings case one week later
McCaul: Boston suspect was radicalized
'The ball was dropped' on Boston suspect

The hearing with FBI intelligence officials, expected to be closed to the public and media, could happen as soon as Tuesday, said Feinstein, D-California.

A look at Tamerlan's past

An aide to the House Homeland Security Committee said its chairman, Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, also intended for the panel to examine the issue.

The Tsarnaev case raised questions about the efficiency of overall security efforts, particularly involving people brought to the attention of federal authorities.

Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police on Thursday night, was an immigrant from the volatile Caucasus region of southwest Russia who had legal residence in the United States and sought last year to become fully naturalized, like his brother Dzhokhar, 19.

Bombing suspect's wife 'very distraught'

However, the Department of Homeland Security rejected the citizenship request due to his past questioning by the FBI before a trip to Russia.

An FBI statement said a foreign government -- later identified by legislators as Russia -- asked for information on Tsarnaev "was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country's region to join unspecified underground groups."

In response, the FBI said, it "checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history."

"The FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members," it said in the statement on Friday. "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."

In addition, the FBI "requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government," its statement said.

That failed to satisfy Feinstein and other legislators.

"I have asked the staff director of Intelligence this morning to set a hearing, particularly with FBI intelligence," Feinstein told CNN on Monday, adding she hoped for answers about what Tsarnaev did during the trip.

What FBI knew about suspect #1 in 2011
FBI wants to talk with suspect's widow
New photos of bombing suspects
Doctor treated Boston suspects, victims

What was Tamerlan Tsarnaev doing in Russia?

"And when he came back to this country, why didn't it ring a bell with the FBI intelligence unit that he should be checked out and vetted again?" she asked.

Feinstein also noted that Homeland Security officials later denied Tsarnaev's application for citizenship, raising another question about who knew what about him.

The purpose of the hearing was "not to criticize, because I am a big fan of the FBI's, but to go back and see that we plug loopholes," Feinstein said.

Timeline: A look at Tamerlan Tsarnaev's past

Tsarnaev, who's ethnically Chechen but came to the United States from Kyrgyzstan, spent six months in Russia, causing some legislators and analysts to speculate he may have received training during the trip.

Conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said Sunday the FBI may have dropped the ball in its investigation of Tsarnaev, began easing off that claim on Monday.

The South Carolina Republican confirmed he talked to the assistant director of the FBI and learned how the bureau interviewed Tsarnaev, his parents and classmates in 2011.

"They put his name through the system and they sent back this information to the Russians and said, 'Do you have anything else?' And they never got a reply back," Graham said.

Graham also noted that Tsarnaev wasn't flagged upon returning from Russia because of an apparent misspelling of his name by the Russian airline Aeroflot.

"It didn't get into the system because of a misspelling," Graham said. "Now whether or not he intentionally changed his name or Aeroflot just got the spelling wrong, I don't know. That's to be determined."

As for apparent warning signs that occurred within the last year, such as YouTube postings of radical Islamists, Graham said the FBI told him "they have limitations on what they can do."

Dead Boston bomb suspect posted video of jihadist, analysis shows

"So maybe it's the system failed, didn't provide the FBI with the tools, or maybe they didn't use it properly," he added. "That's why maybe we need to find out what happened."

His comments sounded similar to those made by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who defended the FBI on Sunday.

Rogers told NBC the agency "did their due diligence" but Russian authorities "stopped cooperating" when the United States sought further clarification. Rogers also said he believed Tsarnaev may have traveled overseas using an alias.

CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, a former FBI official, said there was little the bureau could do once Russia failed to respond to its request for further details.

5 key questions

"If they don't give you more, then everything that can be done has been done unless you know that there should be more to the story," Fuentes said.

He detailed how the FBI employs what amounts to "triage" to deal with what he said were tens of thousands of similar inquiries a year that require some level of bureau investigation.

"If you are getting this from a hot place like Afghanistan or the tribal area of Pakistan or places where we have had specific training camps and people deployed on purpose to come and attack us, then that is the highest priority," he said. "And even there, many of the people that go back and forth are visiting family. I mean, they are not always going back to be trained to be terrorists or always going back for refresher courses on terrorism."

Regarding Russia, Fuentes noted the ongoing conflict with Chechen separatists that may have caused Moscow's request for information on Tsarnaev.

Lohr: What we know about Chechnya

"That's been an ongoing fight, but it's been localized," he said, adding that he couldn't recall a case in which a Chechen trained at home came to attack the United States.

However, Fuentes noted that al Qaeda had sent people to the Caucasus region for training that included bomb building.

Now U.S. investigators need to find out if the Tsarnaevs "had connections, were they deployed by a bigger group, and are there other terrorists in the United States," Fuentes said.

"Are there other explosive devices hidden somewhere or booby traps created, a cache of weapons?" he wondered. "That'll be the task."

de Waal: Suspects' culture of migration and machismo

CNN's Ashley Killough contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Boston Marathon Bombings
Survivors of three earlier bombings describe their journeys forward — and offer poignant words for those just one year away from the day that changed their lives.
updated 2:15 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
"United, we will always persevere." That was the message Massachusetts shared on the anniversary of twin bombings that turned last year's Boston Marathon from a celebration into a day of horror.
updated 2:47 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
I'm running it to make a simple statement: Acts of cowardice will not stop me from exercising my rights as an athlete and a human.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Many of those whose lives were shattered are still struggling to put the pieces back together. Here are some of the victims, as well as larger funds, who continue to need your support.
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
As April 15 approaches, the fact that we tell time in circles brings us to remember the attack on the Boston Marathon one year ago.
updated 10:47 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
CNN's Bill Weir talks to Carlos Arredondo about helping those injured immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
By running in response to the tragedy, we weren't attempting to negate the irreparable harm done to the people of Boston last year. We wanted to do something, anything, to try to process it.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
All of our assumptions have turned out to be wrong. Here are four things we've learned since then:
updated 4:17 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been frozen in the public mind by four images.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
Adrianne Haslet-Davis' life as a dancer was shattered last year at the Boston Marathon bombings.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Mon March 24, 2014
A man who lost both legs in the Boston Marathon attack is engaged to the woman he was waiting for at the finish line.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Wed April 17, 2013
Mistaken identity in the hospital added to her family's grief.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed April 24, 2013
The slain MIT cop "was born to be a police officer."
updated 10:37 PM EDT, Thu April 18, 2013
The graduate student from China followed her passion to Boston.
updated 1:10 AM EDT, Wed April 17, 2013
Almost a year ago, 8-year-old Martin Richard wrote four simple words on a sign at school: No more hurting people.
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
Mery Daniel couldn't wait for Marathon. It was one of the things the aspiring doctor and Haitian immigrant loved most about living in Boston.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Thu May 2, 2013
After twin blasts shook Boston -- killing three and wounding more than 260 others -- investigators sprung into action looking for those responsible.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Sun April 28, 2013
The black Mercedes SUV sped down Spruce Street going about 70 mph, the driver struggling to maintain control. The vehicle had a busted headlight and flat tire.
Click through our galleries of the Boston Marathon bombing, from perspectives on the attack to the suspects, as well as the manhunt and celebrations in Boston after both suspects were found.
ADVERTISEMENT