Tensions between the House Homeland Security Committee and the FBI escalated Wednesday, with the agency’s decision to skip a hearing on the Boston Marathon bombings drawing sharp criticism and questions from the panel.
The FBI has said it cannot participate in public hearings while the bombing case is open, but lawmakers argued that the bureau’s failure to cooperate makes conducting oversight more difficult; and some wondered openly if information-sharing among agencies is deteriorating.
“I think the FBI has a lot to explain here,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “I’m not trying to be a Monday-morning quarterback, but the fact that … they have completely stonewalled us here since the Boston bombing, I think is unacceptable.”
The hearing joins other high-profile cases in recent weeks—including those involving the Internal Revenue Service, the National Security Agency, and the Justice Department—that have cast doubt on Congress’s ability to oversee federal agencies.
“We have to find a way to get through this bureaucracy,” said Rep. William Keating, D-Mass. “What can we do about this? Our obligation is oversight. How can we crack through this so we don’t have a future case-closed roadblock?”
At issue was how much information the FBI shared with local law-enforcement officials before the April attack. As King saw it, the FBI never told the New York City Police Department that the accused bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, had allegedly planned to target Times Square. The police commissioner found out days later, King said. The FBI’s reasoning, according to King, was that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was in the hospital by then. But King argues that no one knew the extent of the plot at that point. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, called the hearing, which included testimony from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and coincided with the arraignment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to examine whether intelligence and law enforcement agencies were adequately sharing information.
But, clearly, part of McCaul’s agenda was also to chastise the FBI.
“It is unfortunate that the FBI has chosen to obstruct this committee’s oversight jurisdiction of events leading up to a terrorist attack,” he said. “This committee has specific questions related to our investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the FBI refuses to answer those.”
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the agency sent a letter on July 3 explaining why it could not participate in the hearing.
"Most notably because it's an ongoing investigation and a pending prosecution," Bresson said. "We have an obligation to protect the integrity of the judicial process while it is ongoing."
The House panel will conduct a second, closed hearing on the bombings, but the FBI will not be attending that one either, according to committee staff.
Steven Bucci, a homeland-security expert at the Heritage Foundation, says another explanation may be that as a part of the Justice Department, which is under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, the FBI could argue that it does not need to appear before the Homeland Security Committee.
“In the mind of the FBI, they are not under the House HLS Committee’s jurisdiction, so they have a right to blow them off,” Bucci said. “The committee, on the other hand, is eager to gain more control over what they see as their enterprise.”