The House Homeland Security Committee’s hearing Wednesday on the Boston Marathon bombing will be conspicuously missing a witness from the agency at the center of the investigation—the Federal Bureau of Investigation—and the debate could grow heated over that fact.
The FBI’s absence is striking. Its role in handling warnings from Russian officials about the deceased terrorist suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev—who was investigated and later fell off the radar—has been called into question.
Whether federal law enforcement officials failed to connect the dots that could have prevented the tragedy remains under investigation by the House Homeland Security Committee, and the FBI’s role is an important part of that examination.
Under the leadership of Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the committee is investigating the Boston terrorist attack, with a deep examination into the integrated law enforcement and intelligence communication network that sprang up in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, under the Department of Homeland Security, to prevent continued stove-piping of information.
The committee is comparing the Boston bombing with other terrorist efforts since 9/11 and is keen to answer whether any communication or security breakdowns that occurred in the lead-up to the Boston attack are endemic of systemic problems in need of reform.
The FBI has conducted closed-door briefings for all members of Congress and special ones for Intelligence Committee members, but none specifically related to the Homeland Security Committee investigation. It is refusing to testify publicly on the attack, citing its ongoing investigation and pending prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“As long as the case is open, I don’t see how we can participate in public hearings,” said Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI. “We’ve been providing briefings to Congress on this investigation.”
The FBI said it sent a letter to McCaul on July 3 explaining that it could not testify and has sent other letters arguing its restraints in providing information.
A point of contention is that while the FBI cites the pending case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a reason it cannot comply, the committee is looking for answers about what happened with information known about his brother, Tamerlan.
Other reasons for the lack of cooperation could be that the Homeland Security Committee does not have direct oversight of the FBI, although the committee generally has oversight on the subject of attacks on the homeland.
The FBI might have justifiable reasons for holding back, but its absence is irking committee leaders who feel the agency is hamstringing its investigation.
“The FBI continues to deny the committee’s request for information and documents related to the bombing,” a committee aide said. “We hope that the FBI sends a witness. We think it is important for them to testify.”
There are ways the FBI could work through its conflicts. The committee has announced it could move to hold part of the hearing with federal officials in a closed-door classified setting, and in either an open or closed venue the FBI could refuse to answer any question it felt might jeopardize the pending case.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee also holds a hearing Wednesday focused on lessons learned from Boston.