Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that her department will help find out why last week’s Boston Marathon bombings occurred and “what more we can do to prevent attacks like this in the future…. We will learn lessons from this attack, just as we have from past instances of terrorism and violent extremism. We will apply those; we will emerge even stronger."
Napolitano told the committee that her department was aware in 2012 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect killed in a shootout with police last week, had left the United States to visit Russia.
“The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” she said. “By the time he returned… the matter had been closed,” a reference to the FBI investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, based on a tip from the Russian government.
She said, “There was a mismatch” because his name was misspelled on his Aeroflot airplane ticket. “Even with the misspelling, under our current system there are redundancies, and so the system did ping when he was leaving the United States.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C. asked Napolitano, “The system picked up his departure, but did not pick up him coming back -- is that correct?” She replied, “That’s my understanding.” But she repeated that by then the FBI probe had expired.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano responds to a question surrounding a trip to Russia that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev took in 2012.
Before last week’s events, the focus of the debate on the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration bill now being considered by the committee was the supply of millions of non-citizen workers who are illegally present in the United States.
But the attacks in Boston – for which Chechen immigrant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged Monday – reminded lawmakers that immigrants can become terrorists after living in America.
Graham, one of the co-sponsors of the bipartisan immigration bill, said at Tuesday’s hearing that when some people say “there was no broader plot here, I just don’t know how in the world we know that at this early stage.” It is too soon to draw conclusions about the Boston case, Graham said.
Napolitano seemed to agree with him on that point, saying that, “This is a very active, ongoing investigation. All threads are being pulled.”
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, began the hearing by referring to the Boston bombings, arguing that “our immigration system is directly related to our sovereignty and national security matters.”
He noted the some foreigners who commit terrorist acts “enter (the United States) legally and stay below the radar.”
Grassley charged that the bipartisan bill would weaken the entry-exit system “because it does not require biometric identifiers and does not deploy a biometric system to land ports.”
He also noted that the committee had heard testimony at its hearing Monday that the bipartisan bill would weaken the current asylum law. “It’s no secret that terrorists are trying to exploit the (asylum) system,” he said.
The Iowa Republican also criticized the bill for not including any provision on student visas and “improving the way we oversee schools who accept foreign nationals.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chief Democratic sponsor of the bipartisan immigration overhaul, suggested at the committee’s hearing Monday that there’s no contradiction between tightening the scrutiny of would-be terrorist immigrants and enacting his bill.
“If there are things that come up as a result of what happened in Boston that require improvement” in his measure, Schumer said, “let’s add them to the bill.”
This story was originally published on Tue Apr 23, 2013 10:40 AM EDT