The House Homeland Security Committee’s prominent testimony from former Sen. Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn., in its first hearing on the Boston Marathon bombing Thursday gave Republicans a convenient way to have a former Democrat condemn the Obama administration’s national security record without themselves looking like partisan attack dogs.
Lieberman, a former Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman and well-known defense hawk, who often sided with conservative Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in the Senate, offered a damning assessment of federal officials’ handling of information and the investigation of deceased suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev preceding the attack.
“To put it bluntly, our homeland defense system failed in Boston,” Lieberman said, before raising dozens of questions poking holes in federal law enforcement’s investigation.
“It would have been hard to stop this one, but it was possible,” he told reporters during a break in the hearing. “There are various points at which Tamerlan Tsarnaev particularly should have jumped up as a topic of interest--someone who could have committed a terrorist act.”
Democratic leadership has been relatively quiet in its response to the Boston attack. The Senate Homeland Security Committee is in the early stages of a bipartisan inquiry, but its leaders have said it is in the information-gathering process and they have not yet announced any specific hearings or next steps.
A senior Democratic aide said Thursday that Democrats want to ensure appropriate oversight takes place and are working in bipartisan consultation with the leadership of the committees of jurisdiction, but they flatly rejected the idea that there is a Democratic strategy on Boston.
A GOP leadership aide said that the Republican strategy on the Boston bombing is to conduct thorough oversight, allowing the senior members on the committees of jurisdiction to take the lead. But it is also clear that the administration’s handling of the security leading up to the attack is a central line of questioning for Republicans.
“There are serious questions that the administration needs to answer,” said the GOP leadership aide.
In the meantime, the tone of questioning from Republicans and Democrats surrounding the attacks is tottering in a delicate place. Graham and McCain have been among the most outspoken critics, with Graham arguing that between the Benghazi attack and the Boston bombing, the administration has taken security backward.
So far, the Boston issue has not taken on the politically charged tenor of the Benghazi attack, but members on both sides seem to be wary that it has the potential to become more contentious.
Although Lieberman used to caucus with Democrats, his invitation to the hearing was from the Republican majority--specifically, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Lieberman did agree with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that a congressional probe should not turn partisan. But that agreement seemed to be more of an urging for Democrats to hold the administration’s feet to the fire, rather than a warning that Republicans should back off.
“We’ve got to go at this administration, Congress, bureaucracy, with this insight, that any one of us, our friends, family, community, our country is going to be the next target of the next terrorist attack, and if we don’t figure out how this one happened, we are not going to be able to figure out the next one,” he told National Journal.
GOP strategists said that inserting Lieberman into the debate, while continuing to press for answers about where security breakdowns occurred, allows Republicans to show they are serious about getting to the bottom of the problems and fixing them without looking like they are trying to turn a tragedy into a political maelstrom.
“It’s a brilliant move,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “Bringing in Lieberman offsets the charges of partisanship that Democrats will make against Republicans.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the Homeland Security Committee’s ranking member, told National Journal Daily that he found Lieberman’s invitation a bit odd, given that he is not in a position to have inside information in the Boston attack. Thompson said that he hoped to hear from Justice Department officials, including the FBI, soon. (McCaul has said federal officials will testify.)
“He comes with a lot of history,” said Thompson, who focused his questions during the hearing on how funding cutbacks might hinder future security situations.
“What I don’t want it to boil down to is a partisan issue because terrorists don’t care if you are Democrat or a Republican,” Thompson told National Journal Daily, adding that he is willing to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt for now. “I ain’t fighting today.”
McCaul told NJD that his goal was not to blame the administration but figure out what happened and address it.
“I don’t think this one is spun up in politics,” he said. “It’s just trying to find out what went wrong and how to fix it to protect American lives in the future. And so I don’t see the bent here as bringing down the administration or anything. It is really about the FBI, [the Department of Homeland Security], and the CIA working with the state and locals.”
Among his concerns, McCaul cited testimony from Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis that his department had not been informed before the bombings about the warnings, investigation, foreign travel, and potential for extremism of the elder Tsarnaev suspect.
“It’s very disturbing,” McCaul said. “It’s this sort of breakdown, you know, DHS was created to fix. We are going to have additional hearings and a lot more questions on this.”
This article appears in the May 10, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.