WASHINGTON — Tensions over a possible breakdown in intelligence-sharing between the FBI and Massachusetts authorities erupted in public Thursday, when Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis testified in Congress that federal agents never advised local officials of their 2011 investigation of one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Davis said he was first told about the FBI’s previous interest in Tamerlan Tsarnaev only after the FBI identified his body following a confrontation with police in Watertown. Davis said he also was not advised of Tsarnaev’s 2012 travel to the Dagestan region of Russia, even though there are three Boston police detectives and one sergeant assigned to the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“We were not aware of the two brothers, we were not aware of their activities,” Davis told members of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We would have liked to have known.”
The testimony prompted an outraged reaction from the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
“The idea the feds have this information and it’s not shared with state and locals defies why we created the Homeland Security Department in the first place,” declared Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the committee.
“We learned over a decade ago the danger in failing to connect the dots,” he added. “My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed. We can and we must do better.”
The testimony prompted the FBI to issue a somewhat defensive statement defending how information about potentially violent individuals is shared within the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Richard DesLauriers, the FBI special agent in charge of the Marathon bombings case, said in the written statement that Massachusetts and city law enforcement officials have ample access to a computer database called Guardian that contains information about threat reports and investigations, including Tsarnaev’s.
“All JTTF members are able to perform customized key word searches of Guardian to identify relevant assessment activity,” DesLauriers said. “Boston JTTF members, including representatives from the Boston Police Department, were provided instruction on using Guardian, including suggestions on methods for proactively reviewing and establishing customized searches.”
He added that the assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, in which the FBI determined he posed no threat, was one of 1,000 assessments the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force performed that year.
In a brief interview during a break in his testimony, Davis acknowledged that he and other Boston officers had access to the Guardian database. But without an indication from the FBI of what to search for, he said, it would have been hard to discover the information they had.
“If I had typed the name Tsarnaev into the computer, I would have come up with it,” Davis said. “But if you don’t know what you’re looking for — you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s like that old saying.”
Davis and DesLauriers stopped short of pointing direct fingers, but the exchange contained clear evidence of tension over possible missed opportunities to focus greater scrutiny on an increasingly radicalized individual who was the subject of warnings from Russia and had been placed on government terror watchlists by the FBI and the CIA.
The moment contrasted with the image the two top law-enforcement officials had projected in the wake of the April 15 bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260, when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a portrait of cooperation and resolve as the investigation unfolded at a breakneck pace. Tsarnaev died after a shootout with police early on April 19. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was apprehended that evening and is in custody, facing a possible death penalty if convicted.
Since the bombings, questions have persisted in Congress about whether warnings from Russian authorities concerning Tsarnaev’s increasing radicalization were handled correctly. They have also questioned why Tsarnaev was not interviewed again in 2012 after he returned from a region of Russia known for radical Islamist activity.
Kurt Schwartz, the Massachusetts undersecretary for homeland security and emergency management, said that prior to the bombings, the Massachusetts State Police and the state Fusion Center, a clearinghouse for intelligence information, also had no knowledge of the Tsarnaev brothers.
The hearing Thursday was the first one to be convened thus far to specifically discuss the Boston bombings and what lessons can be learned. The panel invited former Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who helped establish the homeland security framework after the Sept. 11, 2001, to testify.
“To put it bluntly, our homeland defense system failed in Boston,” Lieberman said in prepared remarks that he submitted to the committee. “With your help, we must find out why and fix it.”
In his testimony, he called the lack of information-sharing a “serious and aggravating omission.”
“Nobody bats 1,000 percent, it’s true … but why didn’t they involve local law enforcement, who could have stayed on this case?” he asked. “Though it would not have been easy, it was possible to prevent the terrorist attacks in Boston.”
Members of the panel said they did not understand why the FBI had to rely on the public to help identify a suspect that the FBI itself had previously interviewed.
“I’m amazed that the general public in Boston had to identify this guy,” said Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican. “That somebody within the FBI or JTTF didn’t go, ‘Wait a minute. That guy looks familiar. Didn’t we investigate him a couple years ago?’ We had to rely on folks in the Boston community to identify him.”
Davis, asked if information about Tsarnaev would have caused Boston police to do anything differently after the bombings, he responded, “That’s very hard to say.”
If local authorities had information about Tsarnaev’s activities prior to the bombing, he said, “We would certainly have talked to the individual.”
During a break in the hearing, Davis hesitated to join the outrage over whether he should have been told more about Tsarnaev before the bombings.
“I’m not ready to vilify anybody at this point in time,” he told reporters. “But there are questions that need to be answered and I’m looking forward to the reviews that are occurring so we can get to the bottom of a lot of different questions.”
“Sure I’m concerned,” he added. “I want to know exactly what the facts are here. But at this point in time, I don’t see any huge problems with what I’ve seen.”
Massachusetts law enforcement officials also offered more information on Thursday about a general threat assessment prepared before the marathon. That assessment included warnings that the finish line was a vulnerable area for “small scale bombings,” but several officials said the assessment is routine and the wording in it was standard.
“I cannot say it strongly enough, or repeat it enough – this is standard language,” David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said in an email following a Los Angeles Times report on several passages in the threat assessment. “This is based on common sense and accumulated expertise in event security, and was not the result of actionable intelligence or any specific threat. To suggest otherwise is extremely disingenuous.”
Schwartz told reporters that the threat assessment had more to do with the potential for protesters disrupting the finish line, and had nothing to do with any specific terrorism threat.
“It’s the recognition that there’s a large crowd of people and someone with a small explosive could use it,” Davis said in an interview. “It’s language that’s in there every year. There’s nothing unusual that’s in the report.”
A threat assessment of the marathon in 2003, for example, had similar warnings. The assessment said the race could be a “possible prime terrorist target” and that hostile elements could use weapons or “explosives during this event to cause mass casualties and create mass destruction, or create widespread fear and terror.”
At the Homeland Security Committee meeting, representatives focused on a range of topics related to the Boston bombings. Republicans several times criticized the Obama administration for what they consider an unwillingness to attribute terrorism to radical Islam. Democrats highlighted the use of federal funds in helping train and equip police officers, saying those resources should not be cut during an age of austerity.
Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas, said the bombings in Boston had already triggered a response in his district, which contains a large population of immigrants.
“In El Paso, our way of life has already been changed following this Boston attack,” O’Rourke said, explaining that international college students are undergoing additional scrutiny. “I’m concerned that we not overreact.”
Davis also met privately Thursday with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, he visited FBI headquarters, and planned to meet at the White House with Lisa Monaco, who is President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and also a native of Newton.
Members on the Homeland Security panel praised Davis effusively, as well as other law enforcement officers involved in the case, including the FBI. They gave Davis a round of applause at the start of the hearing, and later one congressman remarked that top Boston cop would be the perfect character in a movie to play a strong leader.
Davis returned to the victims at the close of his prepared remarks. “These two terrorists tried to break us. What they accomplished was exactly the opposite,” he said in the written testimony. “They strengthened our resolve, causing us to band to together as a city and a nation in times of crisis, to help one another during life changing moments, to allow heroes to emerge, and to prove to Bostonians and to the world, that our city is indeed, Boston Strong.”
Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.