WASHINGTON — Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis told Congress this morning that his department was not informed by the FBI, before the April 15 Boston Marathon terror attacks, about a Russian intelligence warning about bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev or about Tsarnaev’s travel overseas.
The revelation drew outrage from members of the House Committee on Homeland Security who were holding the first congressional hearings into the bombings.
Davis said he was first told about Tsarnaev’s background on the morning that Tsarnaev was killed in a confrontation with police in Watertown. Davis said he was not aware of an earlier FBI investigation into Tsarnaev, even though there are three Boston police detectives and one sergeant working full-time on the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“They tell me they received no word on that individual prior to the bombing,” Davis told the committee.
Davis said he was unaware that Tsarnaev had traveled to the Chechen region or posted on a jihadist website – all information, he said, he would have liked to have known. When asked if that information would have caused police to do anything differently during the investigation, he said, “That’s very hard to say. We’d certainly look at the information.”
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 Tsarnaev or his brother, Dzhokhar, the other Marathon bombing suspect.
Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI office, issued a statement this afternoon saying that the FBI’s 2011 “assessment” of Tamerlan Tsarnaev was documented in a database that Boston terrorism task force members, including the Boston officers, were instructed on how to use.
DesLauriers also said that the task force conducted about 1,000 assessments in 2011. And he said that “by their very nature” and due to constitutional restrictions, the assessments could use only certain types of investigative methods.
He defended the assessment as “thorough , comprehensive and fully compliant with law and policy.”
But Former US senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who also testified at the hearing, called the lack of information sharing suggested by Davis’s testimony 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. “How do you explain it? People are imperfect.”
Under questioning, Davis also said that no one from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth had come forward to identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev immediately after photos of the two suspects were released by authorities three days after the bombing. (One student did come forward and begin working with State Police the day after the photos were released, according to John Hoey, a UMass Dartmouth spokesman.) Davis said he was not certain whether anyone had come forward from the mosque that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had briefly attended.
Lieberman, who was the first to testify at the hearing, raised numerous questions about whether federal agencies did enough to try to prevent the Boston Marathon attacks. “Though it would not have been easy, it was possible to prevent the terrorist attacks in Boston,” he said.
He also had stronger language in his prepared remarks, but softened it when he spoke to the committee.
“To put it bluntly, our homeland defense system failed in Boston,” Lieberman said in the prepared remarks submitted to the committee. “With your help, we must find out why and fix it.”
Lieberman emphasized that average residents need to do more to prevent such attacks – citing mosque leaders, family, and friends of the Tsarnaev brothers.
“The cost of silence can be enormous,” Lieberman said. “There were clearly people who could have prevented the massacre ... by just saying something.”
Questions have been raised about whether whether the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, and counterterrorism agencies properly handled Russian warnings about the growing radicalization of Tsarnaev and his travel to Russia in 2012.
Davis also urged the government this morning to strengthen security around large public events, using more undercover police officers and surveillance cameras as a way to prevent incidents like the attack on the Boston Marathon.
Davis cited some of the technologies that helped investigators determine what happened in Boston, and who was responsible. “Images from cameras do not lie. They do not forget,” Davis said in written testimony.
“They can be viewed by a jury as evidence of what occurred. These efforts are not intended to chill or stifle free speech, but rather to protect the integrity and freedom of that speech and to protect the rights of victims and suspects alike.” Any additional surveillance, Davis said, would have to be done in a way that still protected civil liberties.
“I do not endorse actions that move Boston and our nation into a police state mentality, with surveillance cameras attached to every light pole in the city,” Davis said in written testimony. “We do not and cannot live in a protective enclosure because of the actions of extremists who seek to disrupt our way of life.”
Davis opened his remarks by recounting what happened on April 15 at the finish line, and by paying tribute to the victims. He also highlighted the coordination among a vast array of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the first hours of response.
He asked Congress to preserve and enhance funding in areas that helped the response to the attacks, a request that comes at a time of budget cutbacks.
“I also encourage the federal government to continue the important funding for the hiring of police officers as well as intelligence analysts, who are needed for both the prevention of further crimes as well as to respond to incidents such as this one,” Davis said in his written testimony.
In closing, Davis again returned to the victims, and to resolve in Boston. “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.”Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.