WASHINGTON—Russian authorities alerted the US government not once but ``multiple’’ times over their concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev—including a second time nearly a year after he was first interviewed by FBI agents in Boston—raising new questions about whether the FBI should have focused more attention on the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, according to US senators briefed on the probe Tuesday.
The FBI has previously said it interviewed Tsarnaev in early 2011 after it was initially contacted by the Russians. After that review, the FBI has said, it determined he did not pose a threat.
In a closed briefing on Tuesday, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee learned that Russia alerted the United States about Tsarnaev in ``multiple contacts’’—including ``at least once since October 2011,’’ said Richard Burr, a Republican of North Carolina, speaking with reporters afterward.
Senators said the briefing also revealed failures among federal agencies to share vital information about Tsarnaev, indicating, they said, that the US government still has not established a strong system to ``connect the dots’’ about would-be terrorists residing in America more than a decade after 9/11.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised law enforcement authorities for quickly producing videos of the suspects and putting a halt to their violent spree Thursday night and Friday.
“But I’m very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with the sharing of information, including critical investigative information,’’ she said after emerging from the closed-door committee briefing. ``That is troubling to me, this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001, that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies but also with the same agency in one case.”
Collins, who was among senators receiving a briefing from Deputy FBI Director Sean M. Joyce and officials from the National Counter-terrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security, did not elaborate on details of those failures.
Members of the House also received a briefing Tuesday and emerged with questions.
“We have to go back and take a good hard look at the gaps,’’ said Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida Democrat. ``With each event that occurs like this one, we have to go back and take a look at what lessons we could learn and how to fill in those gaps.’’
Warnings raised by Russia have loomed large in the investigation of how Tsarnaev, a Kyrgyzstan national, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, a naturalized US citizen, allegedly prepared for the April 15 bombing attacks near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
``I think the increasing signals are that these are individuals that were radicalized, especially the older brother, over a period of time,’’ said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, after the briefing. He said the brothers ``used Internet sources to gain not just the philosophical beliefs that radicalized them, but also learning components of how to do these sorts of things.”
US officials have faced tough questions for not tracking the older brother’s travels to the Russian provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya—where he spent more than half of last year and may have interacted with militant groups or individuals.
The FBI has said it was not aware that Tsarnaev had traveled to Russia in 2012. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Monday that the FBI told him it was not aware of the older Tsarnaev’s travels because his name had been misspelled on an airliner passenger list. US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano confirmed the misspelling during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, but she said Homeland Security nonetheless was aware of his trip.
“Even with the misspelling under our current system, there are redundancies, and so the system did ping when he was leaving the United States,” she said.
Napolitano said the Senate’s proposed immigration overhaul bill would improve that system to avoid any chance of clerical errors, by making passports ``electronically readable.’’
Her disclosure that Homeland Security knew of the trip, but not the FBI, raised questions among lawmakers.
“I want to make sure that DHS is talking to the FBI,” said Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “It looks to me like there is a lack of communication.”
Others expressed concern about signs that officials did not connect the dots about the potential threat Tsarnaev’s may have posed.
“Post-911 we thought we had created a systems that would allow for the free flow of information between agencies,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia and member of the intelligence panel. “And I think there have been some stone walls .. .that have been re-created that were probably unintentional.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, cautioned against jumping to any final conclusions.
“We had a full discussion back and forth over the process that’s followed and we need to keep at that and we need to see if there are any loopholes in it, that we fix those loopholes,” she said.
She characterized the issues as part of an evolving intelligence process.
“With every one of these we find problems, it’s not just this one,” she said. “And you try to remedy the problem so next time it’s not going to happen and something else pops up next time, but the right things are being done and the right kind of investigation is being conducted.”
“I think there’s concern about knowledge about the individual’s trip to Russia and was that information shared between the FBI and Homeland Security,” said, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs of the House Homeland Security committee.