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Editorial: U.S. intelligence agencies must keep sharing

An FBI agent goes door-to-door evacuating residents of

An FBI agent goes door-to-door evacuating residents of Norfolk Street as investigators search for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, in Cambridge, Mass. (April 19, 2013) Credit: AP

It's astonishing that members of Congress emerged from briefings on the Boston Marathon attack and headed straight to the live television cameras to express concern that a bureaucratic failure to share intelligence may have contributed to the deadly attack.

If that turns out to be true, then the agencies working to keep us safe have repeated a tragic mistake of the past. One of the hard-earned lessons of 9/11 is that when agencies don't share what they know, patterns of terrorist activity that could help stop an attack can be missed. The inability to "connect the dots" before 9/11 was the reason Congress reorganized a huge swath of the federal bureaucracy to establish the Department of Homeland Security, and created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The point was to break down the bureaucratic silos and competition that had become barriers to communication.

The White House and Congress must not let the FBI, homeland security and intelligence agencies slip back into dangerous old habits.

The briefing the FBI and homeland security officials conducted for Senate and House intelligence committee members was closed to the public. So information about what the various agencies knew about alleged bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the months before the blasts is sketchy.

What's clear is the FBI investigated him in 2011 based on a tip from Russian officials that he may have become dangerously radicalized. FBI agents interviewed him in January of that year and found no links to terrorism.

But some months later, the CIA asked counterterrorism officials to add his name to a terrorist database, which was done. So warning bells should have sounded anew in January 2012 when Tsarnaev went to Russia for six months, where he spent time in Chechnya and Dagestan, Muslim republics in that country that are hotbeds of militant activity.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, said his departure for Russia set off a customs security alert. Customs officials also must have routinely screened Tsarnaev when he re-entered this country in July, but by then the FBI alert had expired and his return set off no alarms. That's a problem.

Somebody should have contacted Russian officials after the trip to find out what a man Russians feared had been radicalized was up to during those six months abroad. It's not clear whether the CIA or anyone else made such an inquiry or, if they did, whether they shared what they learned with the FBI. But that trip, together with previous suspicions, should have prompted officials to take another look.

None of the senators said better information-sharing would have prevented the Boston bombings. But some, like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), suggested Congress should look at possibly authorizing the CIA to gather intelligence on potential lone-wolf terrorists on American soil. That's a bad idea. There's good reason the FBI, a law enforcement agency, handles domestic investigations. The intelligence agencies don't play by constitutional rules. Allowing them to operate here would invite abuse. And it shouldn't be necessary if the FBI, customs and other agencies cooperate to get the job done.

There's still a lot to find out, but the concern that the anti-terrorism bureaucracy should have known more or could have done more shouldn't redraw the lines about who does what.