House Questions Terrorism Detection Tools After Boston Attack

The House Homeland Security Committee held its first hearing on the Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath on Thursday. Witnesses included the Boston police commissioner and former Sen. Joe Lieberman. Panel Chairman Mike McCaul has been highlighting intelligence failures.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been three weeks since a pair of deadly bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Today, Congress weighed in with the first hearing on what law enforcement did right that day and what it may have done wrong. Texas Republican Michael McCaul put it this way.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL MCCAUL: My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed. We can and we must do better.

SIEGEL: With more on the day's hearing, here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Lawmakers focused on what federal authorities knew about ringleader Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, before the bombings. Committee Chairman McCaul asked why FBI and Homeland Security apparently never discussed Tamerlan's trip to Russia with local police. Here's his question to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis.

MCCAUL: But if you knew of a Russian intelligence warning that this man was an extremist and may travel overseas, and the fact that he did travel overseas, he came back into the United States, would that may not have caused you to give this individual a second look?

EDWARD DAVIS: Absolutely.

JOHNSON: Davis said facts are still coming out about the tragedy so it's hard to say what, if anything, he would have done differently. One law enforcement source told NPR the FBI's initial look at Tamerlan was entered in a database, an electronic file that could have been accessed by members of a terrorism task force, including local police.

This all matters because after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Congress created the Homeland Security Department specifically to help law enforcement connect the dots to prevent terrorism. But former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who pushed that effort, said today we may have the opposite problem.

JOE LIEBERMAN: In fact, today there's so much information being shared on the same metaphorical boards by governmental agencies that the larger problem for our Homeland Security personnel may be being able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

JOHNSON: Those huge federal terrorism databases should not be the first line of defense, Edward Davis said.

DAVIS: There's no technical means that you can point to. There's no computer that's going to spit out a terrorist name. It's the community being involved in the conversation and being appropriately open to communicating with law enforcement when something awry is identified.

JOHNSON: Longtime terror fighters say no matter how good their systems are, they can't guarantee absolute safety. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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