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Shutdown delays intelligence review of Marathon bombings

WASHINGTON — A high-level government review to learn whether the FBI, CIA, or other federal security agencies might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings has been further delayed as a result of the government shutdown earlier this month, according to US intelligence officials.

The classified assessment, initiated by the inspectors general of four agencies after the deadly April 15 attacks, has bogged down because of “the recent lapse in appropriations” and a series of furloughs, the officials told the Globe last week.

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Officials had already told Congress the probe was taking longer than expected and would not meet a September deadline. A a new date to have it done has not been set, said a spokesman for I. Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community.

The news drew negative reactions from Massachusetts officials who have raised questions about how authorities handled tips from Russia regarding the potential radicalization of one of the bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and whether procedures need to be tightened.

“If that is not a priority I don’t know what is,” said Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat and member of the Homeland Security Committee. “The purpose is to see what could have been done differently to prevent [an attack] in the future.”

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The stymied efforts are the latest example of the ripple effects from the 17-day shuttering of many federal operations, which was the result of Congress’ failure to reach a budget agreement before the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

Officials said the shutdown has hampered various agencies’ ability to conduct interviews, undertake research, or pay support personnel who are responsible for reviewing the operations of the government’s terrorism databases before the Marathon attack and determining whether information on the bombing suspects was properly handled.

Edward F. Davis, Boston’s police commissioner, who has been critical of the level of cooperation between federal and local officials before the bombing, is among those eager to see the results of the inquiry.

“I think the after-action report is critical, and it should be prioritized,” he said. “I don’t think it is healthy for the nation to have this happen and not vet all the systems.”

The holdup was explained as court filings in Boston revealed that a friend implicated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in an unsolved triple homicide in Waltham on Sept. 11, 2011 — half a year after the FBI, at the urging of the Russian government, first interviewed him for possible terrorist ties.

A key question for the inspectors general in the Marathon case is whether the FBI or Homeland Security should have more directly alerted local law enforcement of Tsarnaev’s travels to the restive Russian province of Dagestan before the bombing or if they fully heeded warnings from Russian intelligence that he was being indoctrinated by radical Muslim websites.

The FBI has maintained that all relevant information on its 2011 inquiry of Tsarnaev — in which it said it found no reason to believe he posed a threat — was shared with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston and was therefore available to local law enforcement officials who are members.

But Davis has complained repeatedly that inputting such information in a shared database without actively alerting local officials is not sufficient.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout in Watertown on April 19, while his brother and alleged accomplice, Dzhokhar, is being held at Fort Devens federal prison and faces 30 charges. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The traditional role of inspectors general is to conduct independent investigations of the internal operations of government agencies. The Marathon review was ordered two weeks after the twin bombings in Copley Square killed three people and wounded more than 250 others.

Launched by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, it was designed to review “the US government’s handling of intelligence information leading up the Boston Marathon bombings,” according to his directive.

Among the agencies involved are the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department, which has authority over the FBI.

“They want to have an objective assessment and they want it to come from people inside their organizations so that they can fix things,” said Kevin T. Ryan, a retired Army general who is now director of defense and intelligence projects at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Did we make mistakes before, during or after and how can we correct those mistakes?”

The shutdown, however, has compounded what was already proving to be a difficult exercise.

Last month congressional oversight communities were informed that while officials were “working diligently” to complete the review, the process of interviewing counter-terrorism officials and reviewing computer files had turned out to be more challenging than expected. McCullough, the intelligence community’s inspector general, said at the time that “information relevant to the review is still being provided to the review teams.”

A senior Senate staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said briefings recently scheduled for intelligence officials to brief key congressional committees on the progress of the review were canceled.

As for Keating, any potential revelations from the review about the FBI’s dealings with the Tsarnaev family and the Russian government could prove critical: The congressman has met with intelligence officials in Russia who had been monitoring the older brother’s activities and said he still has not received an answer to a detailed letter he sent the bureau over the summer.

The FBI has also declined to testify publicly before congressional oversight committees, citing the ongoing criminal case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“I’m hopeful [the IG] review will tell us more than the FBI has,” Keating said.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender
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