Texan in House wins bipartisan praise for Boston bombing probe
WASHINGTON — With the precision of a seasoned prosecutor, Austin Rep. Michael McCaul probed for details. Question after question, he exposed lapses that let Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, slip through the costly security net built over the last 12 years.
“Before the bombing, were you aware of the Russian intelligence warning regarding Tamerlan?” the new Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee asked Boston’s police commissioner.
“We were not, in fact, informed of that particular development,” replied Commissioner Edward Davis.
“Were you aware that based on this Russian intelligence that the FBI opened an investigation into Tamerlan?” McCaul pressed. “Were you aware Mr. Tamerlan traveled to the Chechen region? … Would you like to have known that fact?”
No, no and yes, sir.
Even before he won his seat in 2004, Dallas-born McCaul was steeped in counterterrorism and law enforcement after stints as a federal prosecutor and deputy state attorney general. Now, early in his leadership of the House panel that prods a vast security apparatus to connect as many dots as possible, McCaul said he feels the weight of a nation’s safety on his shoulders.
“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but I take this job very seriously,” he said. “Our fundamental mission is to protect American lives. I’m not into the gotcha political game, but if I can fix a broken process that hopefully will save lives in the future, that’s worth it.”
Questions for federal authorities will come later, but at last week’s hearing — the first focused on the April 15 horror on Boylston Street — McCaul’s main mission was to illuminate missed signals.
“I didn’t realize that four months into my chairmanship, I’d be hit by the largest terrorist attack since 9/11,” he said afterward. “I just want it on the record that the Boston Police Department was kept out of the loop by the feds. That’s not what you want after 9/11.”
McCaul, 51, is the richest member of Congress, with a fortune valued at $306 million or more, thanks mostly to family wealth of his wife, Linda.
He spent nearly $2 million of his own funds to win election in 2004, in one of the costliest House contests that year. Having overseen counterterrorism cases in the Austin-based U.S. attorney’s office, he promised voters he would use that experience to address the war on terror.
Since then, he’s held a firm grip on the district, which stretches from his home in Austin to suburban Houston. And in Congress, he quickly began to specialize in border security and domestic and international terrorism.
Two years ago, he angered Mexican officials by pushing to designate six drug cartels as international terrorist groups, lumping them with the likes of al-Qaeda. Critics suspected grandstanding ahead of a bid for Senate or other statewide office, but no such bid materialized, and he is generally regarded as thorough and thoughtful.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who has worked closely with him on border issues, considers McCaul especially well-suited to his new role.
“He’s very cautious and moderate about how he approaches topics. He uses a lot of the experience that he had as a U.S. attorney,” Cuellar said. “He’s very measured.”
The contrast with the last chairman is stark. Rep. Peter King, a brash New Yorker displaced as head of the panel by his party’s term limits, had no qualms about blasting his own party’s leadership last year for delaying superstorm Sandy relief.
By then, the bombastic King was already familiar to TV news viewers — a celebrity that McCaul is quickly attaining.
King said he admires McCaul’s more cerebral style, calling the questioning of the Boston police commissioner “absolutely terrific” — emblematic of a rigorous approach designed not to embarrass but to illuminate.
“It was done calmly, quietly, but really effectively,” he said.
As a Texan, McCaul has long focused on security along the Southwest border. But like King and the nation’s security professionals, he recognizes that New York remains a prime target. Soon after he became chairman, he visited the city to meet with the police commissioner and other top officials.
King lauded him for that, and for trying to leverage public outrage at the Boston attack to expose shortcomings and push improvements.
Much of the committee’s work is done in secret, though. Leaders from both parties get classified briefings on events that make headlines, and on countless others that don’t.
Being in the know, King said, can be tricky. Sometimes critics air an allegation you know is unfounded but can’t discuss.
“One challenge is to keep people aware of the issue when it’s not on the front pages,” he said.
McCaul leans heavily on his background as a prosecutor to keep it all straight.
“It’s kind of what I used to do. It’s what I like to do,” he said.
Throughout the 41/2-minute examination of Boston’s police commissioner, another witness nodded approvingly.
Joe Lieberman, who chaired the Senate Homeland Security Committee before retiring from Congress this year, called the line of inquiry “very important.”
“When you’re dealing with homegrown radicals, the community around them is probably going to be your first line of defense,” Lieberman said. The failure of the FBI and Homeland Security Department to notify Boston authorities about the Tsarnaevs before the attack — despite red flags from Russia — “is really a serious and aggravating omission,” he said.
McCaul followed up his questioning with lengthy back-to-back live shots on TV. In the nearby rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building, between marble pillars that often serve as a TV backdrop, he amplified the dismay he expressed at the hearing.
“This is a wake-up call that the state and locals have to be part of this process,” he told MSNBC. “They were shut out by the federal government, and we just can’t allow that to happen 12 years after 9/11.”
Moments later on Fox, he reiterated the point, and his exasperation was evident.
A tip from Russian intelligence, he said after the TV interviews, “is a pretty extraordinary thing” and deserved more follow-up.
“Maybe Boston PD could have monitored his [Tsarnaev’s] online activities, or talked with friends or others at the mosque,” he said — if only they’d had an inkling about the threat he posed.
Other committee leaders wield influence over budgets and policy. Homeland Security comes with an unusually loud megaphone, especially at moments of crisis.
Little wonder that TV producers now have McCaul on speed-dial. He was on Fox News hours after the attack. That Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, he expounded on clues gleaned from “trade craft” — bombs made from pressure cookers, a Taliban specialty — and concerns that tips about Tsarnaev were ignored.
“He was on the radar, then he got off the radar,” McCaul said.
His efforts have earned praise from the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
“I’ve had more meetings with him about committee business and other things than the former chairman,” Thompson said. “I see homeland security as a nonpartisan issue. He does a good job at that.”
And having led the panel before the GOP won the House in 2010, Thompson can relate to the pressures.
“It’s on your shoulders,” he said. “Some of the briefings that we go to are not really as confident as one might think, when you hear all of the challenges that we face as a country.”