The US Department of Homeland Security rejected multiple requests for the suspected Boston Marathon bombers’ federal immigration records Tuesday, citing the ongoing law enforcement investigation.
The Boston Globe requested the immigration records of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev under the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the public has an urgent right to know how the federal agency handled the Cambridge brothers’ immigration applications. Tamerlan had applied for US citizenship, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, became a citizen last year.
The process is supposed to include background checks, an interview with a federal officer, and other steps.
On Tuesday, a Homeland Security official said he withheld the records based on an exemption in federal law that shields records or information “compiled for law enforcement purposes, the release of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
“I have determined that the records you have requested are part of an open and ongoing law enforcement investigation,” James Holzer, senior director of FOIA operations for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a letter rejecting the request. “Accordingly, those documents are being withheld.”
The government’s refusal to release the files comes amid concerns that the FBI, and possibly other government agencies, missed criticial warning signs or failed to share information before the April 15 bombings killed three people and injured more than 260 near the finish line.
Last week, lawmakers expressed outrage at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing when Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis of Boston said federal agents never told local authorities they investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev or that he traveled to the Dagestan region of Russia, home to several Islamic terrorist groups.
In letters to the Globe, Holzer did not elaborate on how the release of the brothers’ civil immigration records could interfere with the criminal investigation, particularly in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed April 19 following a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was captured that night and is in jail pending trial on bombing-related charges.
The brothers are ethnic Chechen immigrants born in the former Soviet Union. They immigrated to the United States with their parents and settled in Cambridge. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a naturalized US citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, in Boston. Tamerlan Tsarnaev applied that same month for citizenship, but had not yet been approved at the time of the Marathon bombings seven months later.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group that has also filed several FOIAs related to the bombings, expressed skepticism that Homeland Security could justify withholding all of the Tsarnaev brothers’ immigration documents.
Fitton said he worried that Homeland Security is using the exemption to avoid public accountability.
“My guess is there’s nothing terribly secret about what they have that would seriously impact prosecution,” Fitton said. “There might be things embarrassing to the FBI or the intelligence establishment, but there’s usually a category of information that ought to be released to the public.”
In addition to the brothers’ immigration files, Homeland Security also rejected the Globe’s request for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement records on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, citing the criminal investigation. ICE is an agency under Homeland Security.
The Globe plans to appeal the decisions.Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.