It started good enough.
Then it was all downhill.
The Boston Marathon bombing was book ended by two Senate votes on what now passes for gun control in this country -- a bill expanding background checks to gun shows and Internet sales so as to close a loophole and tighten the prohibitions on sales to convicted felons and the mentally ill. The first was just a vote to actually have a debate on the bill. Though there was a real danger that it would not pass the Senate, a phalanx of parents of the Newtown victims went to Washington and more or less embarrassed them into at least talking about it.
This in turn created a sort of false dawn in which we imagined for a moment that mass tragedy could actually shock federal legislators into ignoring the paper tiger that is the NRA and voting for something, however meager, that 90 percent of the country supports.
Alas, it was not to be.
A week later, the full Senate voted against the actual bill by supporting a filibuster on it. The 54-46 vote in "favor" failed to cross the 60 vote margin necessary to end debate and pass the bill, effectively killing it.
In between these two votes, two wannabe jihadis -- one an American citizen, the other a legal resident -- blew up the Boston Marathon at the finish line with home made pressure cooker bombs assembled, apparently, from instructions readily available online. The older of the two, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, attracted the attention of the Russians a few years back and were investigated by the FBI in 2011, which determined they had no ties to terrorism but added their names to the so-called TECS (for "Treasury Enforcement Communications System") database.
The Russians later requested that the CIA also investigate the Tsarnaev mother and elder son. This resulted in their names being added to a terrorism database known as TIDE (for "Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment"). That's a list of 700,00 names used by federal agencies to come up with more specific watch lists. Neither of the two, however, were moved to any of those more specific lists. In addition, the entries in the TIDE database were inaccurate -- the Russians had apparently misspelled mother and son's name. For their part, the entries in the TECS system expire in a year.
There is considerable interest in Congress now about why the FBI closed or did not re-open its investigation of Tamerlan. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham claims that "The ball was dropped in one of two ways -- [either] the FBI missed a lot of things, [or]... our laws do not allow... follow up in a sound solid way." According to Graham, "There was a lot to be learned from this guy. He was on websites talking about killing Americans. He went overseas ... he was clearly talking about radical ideas. He was visiting radical areas."
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) believes the problem is "outdated guidelines." He says the FBI couldn't re-open its investigation of Tamerlan after Homeland Security (via the TECS entry) was "pinged" when he left to visit Russia in January 2012. It is unclear whether Homeland Security was even allowed to inform the FBI of the overseas travel, and it apparently never did so. Though the Joint Terrorism Task Force was notified at that point, it is not clear what they did with the information or which federal agency they gave it to.
By the time Tamerlan returned in June, the TECS entry had expired (and would only have indicated that the FBI's investigation had closed, even if it hadn't expired), so there was no additional "ping." In the meantime, TIDE didn't light up on either his exit or return because the misspelled names provided by the Russians didn't match Tamerlan's travel documents. If, however, accurate information had been provided, the TIDE data in June 2012 also would have indicated that the FBI had closed its investigation.
So, in a nutshell, the Feds have some 'splainin to do.
The first issue is whether the FBI knew or should have known of Tsarnaev's trip to Russia in January 2012, and if so, what the agency did or should have done with that information. The second is to which specific agency the Joint Terrorism Task Force reported the trip, and what that agency did or should have done with that information. The third is whether Sen. Graham has the time line right. His statement suggests that Tamerlan's radical Web surfing might have occurred before the FBI investigated. The agency, however, says it checked his web usage before concluding the investigation. The fourth is what the Russians knew, what they told us, and why they did not tell us any more, if more there was to tell.
Congress will leave no stone unturned in attempting to answer these questions.
As it should.
This is about terrorism. Perhaps of the so-called lone wolf variety, which is the hardest to discover and stop. Three people died and hundreds were injured. As we all know, more than three thousand have died at the hands of terrorists over the course of the last decade and a half, and our response has been swift. In the wake of 9/11, we passed the Patriot Act with record speed, sacrificing liberty for security in a bargain with the devil that will haunt us for decades. Years later, we renewed that Act with equal dispatch. That's what we do when 3,000 plus victims die at the hands of terrorists.
On gun violence, however, it's been a different story, as Chris Hayes recently pointed out on MSNBC:
That's the approximate number of people who die from gun violence each year.
That's the number who died from gun violence during the period 1999-2010.
Question: What has Congress done in the last decade to combat this epidemic?
In January, PBS commentator Mark Shields pointed out that, if you go back to 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, more Americans have died from gun violence than have been killed in all of the country's twelve wars. The count is...
For the record, five Democrats voted against the background check bill earlier this month. One, the majority leader, did so merely to preserve the possibility that the measure could be brought up again and otherwise would have voted for it. Of the remaining four, however, three of them were from states where more than 80 percent of the public supported the bill. So was Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who also voted to kill the bill. When asked why they ignored the views of such super-majorities in their own states, the Senators either said nothing... or claimed those figures were wrong... or asserted that the anti-gun control forces were louder and vote on that issue alone.
By the way, Lindsey Graham voted against the background check bill as well. So did Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker. When reporters caught up to him last Friday, he was at Reagan National Airport, on his way home, bemoaning sequestration cuts that furloughed air traffic controllers and created delays at major city airports throughout the country . . .
But praising the House of Representatives for eliminating those cuts.
Which -- in what may be a new legislative land speed record in Washington -- it did in about 48 hours last week.
For the 70,000 kids who won't get into Head Start because of sequestration, the cuts remain. The same goes for those out in the cold seniors who won't get their meals on wheels.
T.S. Eliot was right...
"April is the cruelest month."
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