This would probably be a bigger story if not for the NSA revelations still reverberating across America. FBI Director Robert Mueller disclosed in Congressional testimony this past week that the FBI knew of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the Russians asked the Bureau to look into his potential ties to terrorism.
Deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to the attention of the FBI on at least two occasions prior to a Russian government warning in March 2011 that said he appeared to be radicalizing, FBI Director Robert Mueller said in Congressional testimony this week.
The earlier references have led some lawmakers to question whether the FBI acted too quickly in closing an assessment of Tsarnaev’s potential ties to terrorism done in response to the Russian request.
In a little-noticed exchange before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, Mueller acknowledged that the Russian alert was not the first time the elder Tsarnaev brother crossed the FBI’s radar.
“His name had come up in two other cases,” Mueller said in response to questions from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “Those two other cases, the individuals had their cases closed. So, he was one or two person [sic] away.”
When King asked Mueller if it was reasonable to say that the Russian letter “refocused” the FBI on Tsarnaev, Mueller replied, “Absolutely.”
Mueller did not elaborate on the nature of the prior investigations where Tsarnaev’s name had arisen. However, an FBI official told POLITICO they were not related to terrorism. The official, who asked not to be named, also said the agent who conducted an “assessment” of Tsarnaev in response to the Russian warning in 2011 found the previous references and was aware of them.
Former House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he believes the prior mentions of Tsarnaev in FBI files should have resulted in greater scrutiny of the Russian-born U.S. resident who allegedly went on to carry out the April 15, 2013 bombing that killed three and an ensuing crime spree that left a police officer dead.
Tamerlan was eventually killed in a shootout with police a few miles away from the bombing scene. His brother, Dzhokhar, survived the shootout. He has been charged with the bombings and is in a federal prison hospital near Boston.
“What are the chances of the Russians reporting on someone who’s pretty obscure and the FBI checks him out and finds out his name has come up twice before?” asked Peter King. “Wouldn’t it have warranted keeping the investigation open longer or at least going to the Boston police and warning them?”
Why didn’t we hear about this earlier? Here we are, nearly two months after the bombing, and Mueller casually lets it drop that they had Tamerlan Tsarnaev on their radar even before the Russians asked the agency to look into any connections to terrorism.
There are many reasons the FBI would have had an interest in Tsarnaev beyond terrorism. The feds may have been investigating whether he lied on his asylum application. If Tsarnaev’s mother can be believed, the FBI was using Tamerlan as an informant. But the fact that he had been under investigation by the FBI previously makes Rep. King’s questions very relevant: why close the investigation?
There is little doubt that the FBI should have been keeping better track of Tsarnaev. At the very least, they should have informed Boston police of the Russian inquiry. But whether anyone could have done anything to stop the bombing will probably remain an unknown.