House Panel Probes Information Sharing In Wake of Boston Bombing

By Edward Donga
BU News Service

WASHINGTON — In the first congressional hearing focused on the Boston Marathon bombing, members of the House Homeland Security Committee Thursday probed the successes and failures of interagency cooperation immediately following the April 15 attacks.

Members of the committee, including Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., questioned Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis and Kurt Schwartz, undersecretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, on any missteps made during the ongoing investigation — particularly with regard to how the different federal and state agencies worked together.

“Cooperation and collaboration across agencies, disciplines, and jurisdictions was immediate and extraordinary,” said Schwartz.

But some members of the panel appeared skeptical, and former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. — who chaired the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – was critical at times, suggesting that federal authorities should have done a better job of sharing threat information with state and local enforcement.

“I believe that though it would not have been easy, it was possible to have prevented the terrorist attacks in Boston,” said Lieberman.

However, appearing on the same witness panel as Lieberman, Davis and Schwartz credited the quick capture of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — the brothers who allegedly left two bombs near the marathon’s finish line — to the funding and effort put into the joint training of law enforcement officials at every level of government in anticipation of a terrorist attack.

“Over the years, the millions of dollars that we’ve invested under local, regional, and state interoperability plans ensured that responders and command personnel were able to effectively communicate between agencies, between disciplines, and between jurisdictions,” said Schwartz.

He added, “We benefitted from our investments in regional exercise programs that allow first responders to hone specialized skills and gain familiarity with responders from other areas who may be called to support under mutual aid agreements.”

Notwithstanding Davis’ and Schwartz’s praise for the interagency cooperation, a number of members of the committee pressed Davis on interaction between the FBI and the other law enforcement agencies.

Several legislators wanted to know when the FBI had informed Davis that Russian officials previously asked the bureau to look into Tamerlan Tsarnaev after the latter traveled to Russia last year. Davis replied that he had not been informed of that until Tsarnaev was already in custody.

Pressed on whether he thought the Boston Police Department would have been able to prevent that attack had they been given that information earlier, Davis said he was unsure.

“I think the answer is it’s hard to say,” said Davis. “Someone looked at this initial information and closed the case, so there was an assessment that it wasn’t going to need more than the initial inquiry.”

If the FBI did not explicitly inform the Boston Police Department about the inquiry into Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it released a statement late Thursday — in an apparent response to Lieberman’s and Davis’ testimony – noting that the Boston Police Department had access to the database where the FBI’s report on Tsarnaev was kept.

The report, known as an assessment, was kept in the FBI’s so-called Guardian database, which monitors potential terrorist threats. As members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force that the FBI oversees, the Boston Police Department had access to the database, according to a statement from Richard DesLauriers, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston division.

“All JTTF members are able to perform customized key word searches of Guardian to identify relevant assessment activity,” DesLauriers said in the statement. “Boston JTTF members, including representatives from the Boston Police Department, were provided instruction on using Guardian, including suggestions on methods for proactively reviewing and establishing customized searches, which would allow them to be fully informed of all JTTF activity that may affect Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

The statement went on to say that over 1,000 assessments, including that of Tsarnaev, were conducted in 2011 alone. Assessments are used to gather information in situations that do not rise to a level that would allow for the opening of a formal investigation, the statement added.

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