WASHINGTON — A sharply critical congressional report on Wednesday said federal officials suffered multiple communication failures in the year before the Boston Marathon bombing and called on authorities to significantly tighten up scrutiny of “hot lists’’ of potential terrorism suspects when they embark on foreign travel.
The 37-page report, produced by the staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security, takes the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, and other officials to task for missing opportunities to scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev after he was first investigated by the FBI in 2011.
Although the report stops short of blaming any particular agency for failing to focus more attention on Tsarnaev, it paints a damning portrait of a lack of coordination between them. And it casts doubt on assertions by the FBI and other agencies that greater attention on Tsarnaev would not have prevented the bombings.
“The committee is . . . concerned that officials are asserting that this attack could not have been prevented, without compelling evidence to confirm that is the case,” the report said.
“There were opportunities in which greater sharing of information might have altered the course of events,” the document adds. “Such failures must not be allowed to persist.”
In alarming detail, the congressional investigators detailed how Customs and Border Protection officials missed opportunities to detain Tsarnaev for questioning at JFK Airport in New York, even though alerts were triggered when he booked air travel to and from Russia in 2012.
One of those alerts contained an advisory that said “detain is mandatory.’’ But customs officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport were not reviewing all of the high-interest subjects on daily advisories.
“While it is impossible to say with certainty that such a second look would have prevented the bombings, it is equally impossible to say with certainty it could not have,” the report reads.
Another key finding: the FBI needs to do a better job of sharing information about potential terror suspects with local police. A Boston Police Department investigator was assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, but the officer’s ability to handle information was severely restricted. The FBI’s task force agreement required the Boston investigator to seek FBI approval before sharing tips and other intelligence with superiors outside the task force.
While Boston Police may have done nothing differently if they had been provided more information about the suspect before the bombing, the report said, “it is impossible to know how wider dissemination may have impacted events.”
The highly anticipated report — initially supposed to be released in January — is the first of several official government reviews that are scheduled to be released in coming months as officials attempt to draw lessons from the Boston Marathon bombings and prevent similar attacks. The document is the result of months of public and private testimony and interviews, congressional fact-finding missions to Russia, examinations of government records, and press reports.
The review was released publicly Wednesday evening, after outlines of the findings leaked the day before. A public hearing is planned in Washington early next month, about one week before the anniversary of the bombing.
The FBI defended its efforts before the bombings, saying it acted properly with the information it had at the time.
“We acted upon the information provided to us by the Russians in 2011 and did everything legally possible at that time to ascertain whether or not Tamerlan Tsarnaev posed a threat,” said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. “We took a number of steps including conducting an interview with him and his family but found no derogatory information.”
Bresson said the FBI has already taken steps to address some of the recommendations in the report, with senior FBI officials meeting with state and local officials to emphasize information needs to be shared “as effectively as possible.”
An official at the Department for Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, said the agency “has already taken steps to identify and address coordination issues raised as a result of the investigation.”
As the finishing touches were being placed on the report this week, a partisan fight broke out on the committee, sapping support and potentially blunting the effect of its findings. Key Democrats on the committee criticized majority Republicans who control the investigation for not following proper procedure for including classified intelligence material.
As a result, only one of the committee’s 14 Democrats signed onto the report: Representative Bill Keating of Bourne. Seven of the committee’s 17 Republicans signed on.
“This shouldn’t be about Democrats and Republicans,” said Keating. “If you can’t put that stuff behind you on an issue like this, then I don’t know when you can.”
Keating, who traveled to Russia several times and wrote letters to the FBI trying to gain further insights, played a key role in crafting the report.
“It became clear that there were red flags that existed that should have been tripped — and they weren’t,” he said. “It’s a combination of procedures that have to be changed and human error that existed.”
The report also criticizes the FBI for being uncooperative in the initial stages of the House investigation.
“While some federal agencies responded to the committee’s questions, for several months the FBI largely denied or ignored the committee’s requests for assistance,” the report read.
The April 15 bombings killed three people and injured more than 260. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed during a shootout with police 3½ days after the bombings. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured in Watertown and is awaiting trial on 30 charges in federal court.
The House committee’s report provides one of the most in-depth, official timelines to date on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trips to Russia, beginning in 2011, when the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, wrote to the FBI and warned that the Cambridge resident was becoming radicalized. The FBI subsequently cleared Tsarnaev of suspicion a few months later, but the Russians wrote again to the CIA in September 2011. As a result of these contacts, Tsarnaev’s name was entered on law enforcement computers, with instructions that he be scrutinized and interviewed when he traveled overseas.
That is one area where the system broke down, the House committee review found.
When Tsarnaev showed up at the airport in January 2012 to board a flight to Moscow, there were 22 customs officers assigned to conduct outbound targeting and examinations for five international terminals at JFK. But Tsarnaev was not subjected to any searches or interviews.
The report suggests that he was not pulled aside because other potential suspects were considered a priority that day.
The House report said it was “disconcerting that a decision was made” not to review all individuals on the list.
There was another problem: one alerts in the system listed Tsarnaev’s date of birth incorrectly, and misspelled his last name, with an extra y: “Tsarnayev.”
Tsarnaev spent six months in Dagestan, where US authorities have said he sought training from Islamist radicals.
He returned to the United States on July 17, 2012. By that time, the first computer alert, which lasts for a year, had expired. Only the second note, with his named misspelled, was still in effect. Again, he was not pulled aside for questioning.
“Given his interest in jihadist materials, it is possible [customs] officials might have found something in his possession that would have revealed the threat he posed,” it said. “This lack of communication represents a failure to proactively share information that could potentially save lives. Indeed, any further scrutiny upon Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s return from Russia might have prevented the bombing if it revealed evidence of his radicalization or of ties to terrorism.”
Portions of the House report have been redacted, but it appears as though intelligence agencies at one point were trying to put Tsarnaev into other, more restrictive government databases, which would have caused more scrutiny when he reentered the country. But those entries were incomplete, so they did not raise any red flags when he re-entered the country.
Keating said he is now planning legislation that would build on the report’s recommendations. One bill, he said, may focus on providing more funding for customs agents.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where if things could be avoided, this could happen again,” Keating said. “We’ll never know for sure whether any of these things would have prevented the Marathon bombing. But I’m 100 percent sure that going forward implementing these recommendations, we’ll prevent other tragedies from occurring.”