WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday defended the FBI’s handling of Russian intelligence tips on one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, even as he endorsed an investigation into the lessons to be learned from the case, including ways to better confront the threat of homegrown terrorists.
While much of the focus from law enforcement officials has been on examining whether suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was radicalized during a six-month trip to Dagestan in 2012, Obama has asked counterterrorism advisers to look at ways to thwart people who may become radicalized in America.
“One of the dangers that we now face are self-radicalized individuals who are already here in the United States — in some cases, may not be part of any kind of network, but because of whatever warped, twisted ideas they may have, may decide to carry out an attack,” Obama said on Tuesday at a White House press conference, the first time he has taken questions since the Boston Marathon bombings. “And those are in some ways more difficult to prevent.”
Obama said that for “months’’ before the April 15 bombings, he had been asking his counterterrorism team what more could be done to identify and prevent such a domestic threat. He appeared to suggest a solution might be closer cooperation with organizations on American soil, while also acknowledging the potential for civil-liberties concerns.
“Are there more things that we can do, whether it’s engaging with communities where there’s a potential for self-radicalization of this sort?” Obama said. “Is there work that can be done in terms of detection? But all of this has to be done in the context of our laws, due process.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an ethnic Chechen living in Cambridge, who Russian authorities in 2011 warned was becoming increasingly radical. The warnings, which also raised red flags about his mother, were delivered separately to the FBI and CIA. The FBI investigated and interviewed Tsarnaev in 2011 and found that he did not pose a threat at that time.
“Based on what I have seen so far, the FBI performed its duties, Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing,’’ Obama declared. “But this is hard stuff.’’
Obama was reacting to a reporter’s question about a Globe report Monday night that Obama’s director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, has requested an investigation to determine “lessons learned’’ from the case. The independent review will be conducted by the Intelligence Community inspector general.
“Is there something that happened that triggered radicalization and an actual decision by the brother to engage in the tragic attack we actually saw in Boston, and are there additional things that could have been done in the interim that might have prevented it?’’ Obama said.
A spokesman for Clapper said that even while he was calling on agencies to comply with the review, he did not believe they did anything wrong.
“Director Clapper believes that every agency involved in collecting and sharing information prior to the attack took all the appropriate steps,” said the spokesman, Shawn Turner. “He also believes that it is prudent and appropriate for there to be an independent review of those steps to ensure that nothing was missed.”
Since two bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, killing three people and injuring more than 260, law enforcement and intelligence officials have been on two tracks: trying to figure out exactly what happened, and how to prevent something similar from happening again.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a confrontation with police on April 19. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, also a suspect, was captured in Watertown on the evening of April 19.
The president said Tuesday that Russia has been cooperative in providing information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travels to Russia in 2012 and its warnings in 2011 to the FBI and the CIA. He noted that he and President Vladimir Putin had spoken about the need for shared information. But he also alluded to decades of distrust between the countries.
“Obviously old habits die hard,’’ he said. “There are still suspicions sometimes between our intelligence and law enforcement agencies that date back 10, 20, 30 years, back to the Cold War.”
Some specialists have said a focus of the new intelligence investigation must be how much the FBI told officials in Massachusetts about the Tsarnaev family beginning in 2011.
The Globe reported last week that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center and the Commonwealth Fusion Center in Maynard, which are supposed to serve as clearinghouses for information about potential terrorist threats, were unaware that the FBI interviewed Tsarnaev as part of a three-month investigation.
“Did the FBI tell the Boston cops? If they didn’t that’s the problem,” said Michael Scheuer, a retired CIA intelligence officer and specialist on Islamic radical groups. “If it turns out the FBI didn’t tell the cops it’s nothing but arrogance and incompetence combined. I have tried to give the benefit of the doubt to the FBI, but that question needs to be answered.”
The FBI has said watchlist information and investigative records about Tsarnaev were available to local officials through Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which is made up of representatives from local, state, and federal agencies.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters he sees two potentially significant lessons from the bombings. If it turns out that the older Tsarnaev had links to Chechen terrorist groups or operatives, he said, US officials will have to pay more attention not only to Chechnya but to other hotbeds of Islamic terrorists that have not been traditionally viewed as threats to US soil.
But even if that is the case, it means officials must look more closely at the self-radicalization process at home, Dempsey said. Officials have said the Tsarnaev brothers may have downloaded bomb-making instructions from the Internet, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev maintained a YouTube account featuring radical Islamic videos.
“There is this . . . global effort to take some of our more vulnerable, notably Muslim young men and women in a direction counter to our values,” Dempsey said, “and it bears increased interest, it seems to me, in the aftermath of the Boston tragedy.”
Some terrorism specialists have already begun to rethink their views of the significance of the homegrown threat after the April 15 attacks.
“It is a case like this that brings home that radicalization takes place within American communities,” said Robin Simcox, a London-based researcher for the Henry Jackson Society, an international affairs think-tank based in London.
Meanwhile, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee vowed Tuesday to hold oversight hearings. They said a critical issue is whether federal and local agencies properly shared and followed up on information before the attack.
Obama also lauded the response by Boston residents in the face of the shocking bombings at a cherished event.
“Everybody can take a cue from Boston,’’ he said. “You don’t get a sense that anybody is intimidated when they go to Fenway Park a couple days after the bombing. There are joggers right now, I guarantee you, all throughout Boston and Cambridge and Watertown.
“We’re not going to be intimidated,” he added. “We’re not going to stop living our lives because warped, twisted individuals try to intimidate us.’’Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.