Lawmakers Want Answers About Flaws In Terrorism Task Force

Congress has held the first hearing into last month's Boston Marathon bombing. It reinforced the narrative that the federal government failed to share information with Boston area authorities.

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On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Congress has held its first hearing on last month's Boston Marathon bombing. Boston's police commissioner testified yesterday that he did not know about an FBI probe into one of the suspects. He also said he's not clear the information would have made a difference.

But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, lawmakers still want answers about the flaws and inadequacies of joint terrorism task forces.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Investigators continue to piece together the story of how and why two brothers - one, an American citizen; the other, a longtime U.S. resident - became terrorist bombers. In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to figure out who is to blame for not foreseeing the radicalization of the Tsarnaevs. At the request of the Russian government, the FBI looked into the older brother - Tamerlan, the one who died in a police shootout.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, questioned Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis over whether law-enforcement officials in Boston knew of Russia's interest in Tsarnaev.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL: Were you aware of that information before the bombing?

COMMISSIONER ED DAVIS: I was not.

MCCAUL: Were the officers on - that you assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force aware of this?

DAVIS: They tell me they received no word on that individual, prior to the bombing.

NAYLOR: There are over 100 joint terrorism task forces - or JTTFs, which include local law-enforcement officials and representatives from a litany of federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Both Davis and Massachusetts Homeland Security and Emergency Management Undersecretary Kurt Schwartz testified that their participants in the Boston JTTF were not told of the older Tsarnaev's trip to Chechnya. But Davis responded, he's not sure that information would have caused Boston officials to act any differently.

DAVIS: We would certainly look at the information; we would certainly talk to the individual. From the information I've received, the FBI did that, and they closed the case out. I can't say that I would have come to a different conclusion based upon the information that was known at that particular time.

NAYLOR: Still, House Committee Chairman McCaul expressed frustration at the lack of information sharing, a problem federal agencies vowed to eliminate after 9/11 and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security 10 years ago.

MCCAUL: The idea that the feds have this information, and it's not shared with the state and locals, defies why we created the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

NAYLOR: In a statement, the FBI said its assessment of Tsarnaev was in a computer database, which Boston officials on the JTTF had access to. One thing DHS has done since its formation is disburse grant money at the behest of Congress. Boston has been the recipient of over $173 million, under a program called the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The money's gone for everything from training bomb-disposal technicians to buying surveillance cameras, to funding emergency response drills. But Congress has been cutting back those funds in recent years. Boston Police Commissioner Davis says that's a mistake.

DAVIS: If it was not for those preparations, there would be more people who had - died in those attacks. It is critical that we maintain that funding to urban areas. This is not a frivolous expenditure; it's something that I have seen work.

NAYLOR: But it's not clear how much of an appetite there is in Congress to increase Homeland Security funding, even after Boston. McCaul says yesterday's hearing will be the first in a series his panel will hold into the April bombings.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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