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Kerry gaffe: Tsarnaev radicalized in Russia

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that deceased alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a killer when he traveled to Russia in 2011, but the State Department and the White House had to walk back Kerry’s remarks right after he said them. Kerry was in Belgium on Wednesday for a NATO foreign minister’s meeting ...

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that deceased alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev became a killer when he traveled to Russia in 2011, but the State Department and the White House had to walk back Kerry’s remarks right after he said them.

Kerry was in Belgium on Wednesday for a NATO foreign minister’s meeting and made the comments about the 26-year old alleged bomber during a brief interaction with reporters.

"We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston," Kerry said. "So he didn’t stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people."

Those comments suggested that Tsarnaev was not able or willing to commit acts of terror and murder before he traveled to the Russian region of Dagestan for six months in 2011, but made some connections to people there that resulted in a more fervent anti-American ideology that contributed to the Boston Marathon attack.

Tsarnaev’s 19-year old brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is talking with law enforcement officials while recovering from injuries, has reportedly said that he and his brother had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and no international help in executing the attacks. The FBI cleared Tamerlan Tsarnaev after an investigation in early 2011, before his Russia trip. The Russian authorities warned U.S. intelligence agencies about Tsarnaev multiple times, including after he returned to the United States in October 2011, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.

Both the State Department and White House press shops sought to walk back Kerry’s comments about the elder Tsarnaev’s Russia experience in their daily press conferences on Wednesday, saying that Kerry was not revealing any actual information on the case.

"The secretary was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism and not necessarily offering any more specific information about this case," Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday. "I’m clarifying his remarks and saying that he was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism.  This isn’t about new details about the ongoing investigation."

Ventrell declined to say whether the administration currently believes that Tsarnaev’s time in Russia contributed to his radicalization, despite that Kerry was apparently not intending to reveal anything new. "I’m not in a position to say one way or another on that," he said.

The U.S. embassy in Moscow sent officials to speak with Tsarnaev’s parents in Dagestan this week as part of an interagency team, Ventrell said. The two parents are expected to come to the United States soon to visit Dzhokhar , although no firm date has been set.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged reporters on Wednesday to set aside Kerry’s comments in Belgium and wait for the FBI-led investigation into the bombings to run its course.

"Secretary Kerry was not reflecting any new information or conclusion about the individuals involved. He was speaking generally about the nature of terrorism. But we are in the process of an investigation. Those comments don’t reflect any new information," he said. 

Carney defended the FBI’s initial investigation into the elder Tsarnaev brother and said there was no indication of terrorist activity or associations with foreign or domestic groups at the time.

He also pushed aside comments by Vice President Joe Biden, who said at the funeral of MIT police officer Sean Collier that the Tsarnaev brothers were "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis." 

Carney warned against jumping to conclusions in the case, without referencing Kerry or Biden specifically.

"So I think we saw last week that there is some danger in making — jumping — to conclusions, making judgments based on new information that may or may not be true, or partial information that will be developed further as time goes on," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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