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FBI’s handling of Russia’s 2011 bomber suspect tip draws scrutiny

The FBI, initially lauded for its quick identification of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, now is facing scrutiny from lawmakers about its handling a 2011 Russian tip that might have averted the attack.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, asked the FBI and other security agencies for all documents on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two brothers now linked to the bombing. He died after being run over by an SUV driven by his brother as he sought to escape a police manhunt in Watertown, a Boston suburb.

While the Russian inquiry and subsequent actions might have provided warning signs, “Tsarnaev remained at liberty in this country to conduct the Boston attack, and it took days to publicly identify him as a suspect,” according to the letter released yesterday and signed by McCaul and Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

“Somewhere along the line, it’s fair to say why didn’t the FBI follow up on” the earlier information, King said yesterday in an interview of MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown.

In 2011, the FBI investigated Tsarnaev after receiving a request from a Russian intelligence service that said he was a “follower of radical Islam” whose plans to travel to Russia raised fears he intended to join “unspecified underground groups,” the FBI said on its website.

The FBI, which interviewed Tsarnaev, said it found no evidence of terrorist activity at that time.

White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday defended the FBI’s actions.

“They investigated it thoroughly and did not find terrorist activity, domestic or foreign,” Carney said.

Not all Republicans have been critical of the FBI’s work on the case, and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, urged restraint yesterday in an interview on Fox News.

Boehner said it’s “way too early” to say whether the FBI lapsed in its investigation. He said congressional committees will help determine whether FBI “dropped the ball or didn’t drop the ball.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who raised questions about the handling of the case intially, said yesterday the FBI did a “pretty good job” of looking into the initial lead, which came from Russia’s FSB, the internal security agency.

The current FBI-led probe is paying close attention to a six-month trip Tsarnaev took in early 2012 to the Russian regions of Dagestan, where his parents now live, and the family’s ethnic homeland Chechnya, areas that have been embroiled in Islamist separatist movements.

The FBI didn’t follow up with a second interview after Tsarnaev returned to the U.S. in mid-2012.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts may have missed Tsarnaev’s Russia trip because his name was misspelled by Aeroflot, the Russian airline, Graham said.

“So it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia,” Graham said on Fox News’s Fox and Friends.

Tsarnaev subsequently expressed more extreme Islamic views. In January, he disrupted a sermon at the Islamic Society of Boston, raising concerns among the congregation, Anwar Kazmi, a member of the group’s board of trustees, said in an interview Sunday. In his outburst, Tsarnaev objected to the idea that both Martin Luther King Jr. and the Prophet Muhammad could be mentioned in the same context as sources of inspiration, Kazmi said.

Graham said that after 2012 and 2013, when Tsarnaev became more radical, the FBI had limitations on what it could do under existing laws. He said this episode shows that Congress may need to “revisit our laws.”

The FBI closed its 2011 investigation after it had “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,” the agency said in a statement.

After interviews with Tsarnaev and his family, “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 bureau said.

Tsarnaev, a legal permanent U.S. resident, did have an application for U.S. citizenship placed on hold after the FBI had questioned him. He had been arrested in 2009 on an assault and battery charge and wasn’t convicted, said Stephanie Guyotte, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex County, Massachusetts, district attorney.

In their letter today, McCaul and King said Tsarnaev “appears to be the fifth person since September 11, 2001 to participate in terror attacks despite being under investigation by the FBI.”

They cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born al-Qaeda cleric killed in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen; David Headley, a Pakistani-American convict for involvement in a 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack; Carlos Bledsoe, a Muslim convert who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for shooting two soldiers at a military recruiting center in 2009; and Army Major Nidel Hassan, charged in the deadly 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, shooting rampage.

Those cases “raise most serious questions about the efficacy of federal counterterrorism efforts,” they wrote in the letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller; Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and James Clapper, director of national intelligence.

“We are going to refrain from commenting at this time,” said Shawn Turner, spokesman for Clapper.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother, Dzhokar, 19, are accused of conducting the April 15 attack on America’s most storied road-running race, planting two bombs near the finish line that killed three spectators and injured more than 170.

After a police chase and shootout that left Tamerlan dead in the early morning of April 19, his brother fled. Officials locked down Boston and surrounding towns for much of that day, and Dzhokar was captured after dark hiding in a trailered boat in the backyard of a home in nearby Watertown, Mass.

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