WASHINGTON — Representative Bill Keating was scribbling furiously in his FSB-branded notebook.
The Bourne Democrat was in a brightly lit conference room in Russian government offices in Moscow in May 2013, sitting at a table across the room from three rows of Russian intelligence officials and officeholders. Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, Russia’s top security service, was reading to Keating and a small congressional delegation a list of dates, times, and communications it had collected about one of the Boston Marathon bombers.
Dumbfounded at the level of detail and struggling to keep up, Keating, a former prosecutor, asked if he could have a copy of the documents.
Smiling, Bortnikov replied, “Well, you can surely get them from your own country.”
It was further confirmation to Keating of what had brought the delegation there in the first place: They were being stonewalled by the FBI.
“I had to travel 4,000 miles to Moscow to get information that was available just blocks away at the FBI office,” Keating recalled in an interview 10 years after the bombing and the massive investigation that ensued. “They gave it to us and the FBI didn’t. That was the thing that was most striking.”
That was just one of several trips Keating and his staff made to Russia in the months after the bombing. Working with other members of Congress, he investigated how Tamerlan Tsarnaev was able to fly under the FBI’s radar, despite warnings about him from Russia.
It was a saga rife with details fit for a spy thriller, including a surprise cameo from Steven Seagal, efforts to dodge Russian surveillance, and furtive meetings with sources fearful of Russian spies.
The investigation also left an important legacy, identifying numerous failings in the nation’s counterterrorism efforts that, had they been corrected earlier, might have made it possible to stop the bombing and subsequent rampage that ultimately killed five people and injured nearly 300.
Keating had been on his way to Logan Airport to return to Washington when he heard news of a bombing near the Marathon finish line. A member of the Homeland Security Committee, he skipped his flight, joining the hub of activity nearby where officials were coordinating the emergency response.
“It was extraordinary the lives that were saved and the coordination, how things went afterwards in that chaos,” Keating recalled. “That part of it went so well.”
In the days that followed, law enforcement circulated pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers, who eventually led police on a manhunt that resulted in Tamerlan’s death and Dzhokhar’s bloody capture in Watertown. Details soon began to emerge about the Chechen family from Kyrgyzstan, possible Islamic radicalization, and Tamerlan’s travel to Russia in 2012. The FBI disclosed it had been warned about Tsarnaev by Russia in 2011, but found nothing of concern upon investigation.
Sensing there may have been missed opportunities to prevent the attack, Keating joined forces with then-Homeland Security Committee chairman Mike McCaul of Texas and the broader committee to investigate.
“I was given the opportunity to use some of those resources or inclinations I had as a DA and bring it to the congressional job, and so we began with an attitude of finding out, first, what happened, and then find out, were there red flags, is there something we can do with the system to stop this from happening again?” Keating said. “And that was where we started digging.”
But quickly, Keating said, the FBI stonewalled congressional investigators, ignoring calls for testimony at multiple congressional hearings and declining to provide materials that the committee sought, including documents from Russian officials warning the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
“The more we investigated it, the worse it got,” McCaul recalled.
It was Keating’s Foreign Affairs Committee colleague, then-representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who first suggested they take a trip to Russia to investigate. Keating agreed, and Rohrabacher, who had longstanding relations with Russia, set up the bipartisan trip. Rohrabacher did not respond to a request for an interview.
In the conference room in Moscow, the Russian officials made a point of saying they had been ordered by President Vladimir Putin to share the information, as part of an agreement made at the highest levels of both governments. Then, Bortnikov began to read from the documents.
“I never wrote so fast in my life because this was extraordinary,” Keating said.
It was clear that the Russians had been closely tracking the Tsarnaev family for their ties to Chechnya and the violent rebels that the United States and Russia considered a common enemy, Keating said. The Russian officials said they had relayed the details twice to the FBI and once to the CIA and asked them for further information on Tsarnaev, but received no response. The FBI asserted it had asked Moscow for more information, a request the Russian officials told Keating never reached them.
“So that was the jaw-dropper to me, there was a lot we learned, but that one moment I’m sitting there going, ‘My God,’ ” said Keating.
But the trip was perhaps overshadowed by what happened after the meetings. Rohrabacher had arranged for the delegation to meet up in Russia with the actor Steven Seagal and the two attempted to take the delegation to Chechnya; neither development was endorsed by the Democrats on the trip or the State Department.
“At one point [Rohrabacher] said, ‘I’ve got a private plane for us,’ ” Keating recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t even want to know where the plane is, I’m not going on it.’ ”
Keating opted to “get out of Dodge” by leaving for another set of European meetings.
Seagal did indeed make an appearance later on the trip, though the Chechnya visit did not happen. At a press conference with the remaining lawmakers, Seagal falsely claimed credit for setting up the FSB meeting.
In January 2014, Keating was in Russia again, this time with McCaul, to see preparations for the Olympics in Sochi and to learn more about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six months in Russia in 2012, including his possible time in Dagestan and Chechnya and whether he met with any known terrorists. The committee’s final report noted that sources during the January trip to Russia told the congressmen that Tamerlan Tsarnaev tried to join the Chechen forces, but was rejected in part because he was too westernized.
The lawmakers also got a crash course in Russian spycraft.
McCaul remembers meeting with an investigative journalist, who nervously indicated to them to glance at the table next to them.
“Her associate had been killed for reporting stories like this,” McCaul said. “And then she kind of motioned over . . . and we looked over, we saw a briefcase with a microphone [pointing at us].”
At the end of their investigation, the committee produced a damning report about missed opportunities to identify Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a threat, including terror watch list notices to detain him that went unheeded at the airport and a lack of communication between federal law enforcement entities and local Boston law enforcement. A later inspector general report reinforced some of those missteps and added that the method used to flag Tsarnaev at the airport at the time relied on yellow sticky notes. Several reforms came out of the investigation, including digitizing the system to flag individuals on watch lists and implementing memoranda of understanding that allowed better sharing of information with local law enforcement.
But when it came time to release the report, Democrats on the committee balked, saying they hadn’t had enough input, a claim both Keating and McCaul disputed at the time.
Keating was the only Democrat to sign the report, saying he felt strongly it had to be public.