FOX UNDERCOVER (MyFoxBoston.com) -- A top U.S. Senator is demanding answers from the FBI about what they knew about the Tsarnaev brothers and when they knew it, asking if agents had recruited either suspected Marathon bomber as informants and if the bureau had the pair under surveillance before releasing their images to the public.
The FBI issued a strongly worded denial that the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which they lead, knew the identities of the Tsarnaevs before the shootout in Watertown that ended one of their lives or that they were ever sources for the FBI.
But in a letter to the head of FBI, which was obtained exclusively by FOX Undercover, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is asking the questions that have been on the minds of many in state and local law enforcement. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with broad oversight over the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Grassley's questions get to a nagging doubt in many minds: if the FBI had the Tsarnaev brothers on its radar before publicly identifying them, could the death of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier have been prevented along with the firefight in Watertown that nearly took the life of MBTA Transit Officer Richard Donohue.
"Did the FBI have the suspects under physical surveillance at any time prior to releasing the photos to the public?" Grassley wrote in his letter to FBI Director James B. Comey, Jr. The FBI aired the photos of the then-unnamed suspects during a 5 p.m. press conference on the Thursday after the bombing, about five hours before Collier was shot and killed.
Grassley also writes that his office has learned through sources that, "In the hours leading up to the shooting of Collier and the death of the older suspect involved in the bombing, sources revealed that uniformed Cambridge Police Department officers encountered multiple teams of FBI employees conducting surveillance in the area of Central Square in Cambridge. It is unclear who the FBI was watching, but these sources allege the Cambridge Police Department, including its representation at the (Joint Terrorism Task Force), was not previously made aware of the FBI's activity in Cambridge."
Grassley asks if the surveillance was being conducted in Cambridge, and if so, were the Tsarnaevs or their associates being watched.
The Cambridge surveillance drew such pointed questions from Grassley not only because it goes to the explosive question of whether the Tsarnaevs slipped through FBI surveillance and went on their path of destruction, but also because the information about surveillance, regardless of who was the target, wasn't shared with local police.
"Continued reluctance on the part of the FBI to share information with local law enforcement, especially in the wake of the Whitey Bulger saga and your ongoing Mark Rossetti investigation, would be extremely troubling," Grassley writes. Rossetti is a made captain in the Boston mafia, a suspected murderer, who was also revealed to be a long-time FBI informant, an issue that previously drew the scrutiny of Grassley as well as U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-South Boston.
FOX Undercover has learned one explanation why there were at least some FBI surveillance teams in Cambridge: several MIT students were being looked at as suspects.
Referring back to the FBI's review of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, prompted by a tip from the Russian government, Grassley asks if the FBI tried to recruit him as a source, and if not, why not.
In a statement, the special agent in charge of the Boston office, Vincent Lisi, said the Tsarnaev brothers were never sources for the FBI and denied knowing any link between the Tsarnaevs and the bombing until after the Watertown shootout.
""Members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force did not know their identities until shortly after Tamerlan Tsarnaev's death. Nor did the Joint Terrorism Task Force have the Tsarnaevs under surveillance at any time after the assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev was closed in 2011," Lisi said.
That was echoed by Rick DesLauriers, the special agent in charge during the Marathon Bombing, who said in an interview with FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet that his office only learned their identities after fingerprinting Tamerlan's body after he was killed in the Watertown shootout. DesLauriers also called any suggestion that the FBI is somehow to blame for Collier's death, "irresponsible".