MOSCOW — The head of a U.S. congressional delegation said Sunday that its meetings in Russia showed there was “nothing specific” that could have helped prevent the Boston Marathon bombings, but that the two countries need to work more closely on joint security threats.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who led the six-member delegation, described discussions with Russian parliament members and security officials as productive. Some of the meetings, he said, were made possible by American actor Steven Seagal.
Seagal, who attended the news conference in the U.S. Embassy, is well connected in Russia. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, and last week paid a visit to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who rules Chechnya, a province in southern Russia that has seen two brutal wars between federal troops and Chechen separatists since 1994.
Those wars spawned an Islamic insurgency that spread across the Caucasus region, including to neighboring Dagestan, now the center of the violence. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the Boston bombings with his younger brother, spent six months in Dagestan last year. Investigators have been trying to determine whether he had contacts with the militants there.
Rep. Steve King said Russian security officials told the delegation they believed that Tsarnaev and his mother had been radicalized before moving to the United States in 2003. “I suspect he was raised to do what he did,” said King, a Republican from Iowa.
His account of the meeting at the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, was disputed by Rep. Steven Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, who said he understood that the radicalization took place much later, when the family was living in Boston.
Rohrabacher said a higher level of cooperation between the United States and Russia is necessary to keep people safe in both countries. “Radical Islam is at our throat in the United States, and is at the throat of the Russian people,” he said.
The congressman repeatedly thanked Seagal, who took credit for arranging the congressmen’s meeting at the FSB, and said it helped avoid the experience of past foreign trips when all of the meetings had been arranged by the U.S. Embassy.
“You know what we got? We got the State Department controlling all the information that we heard,” Rohrabacher said. “You think that’s good for democracy? No way!” The action movie star escorted the congressmen on a trip Saturday to the site of a terrorist attack in the Caucasus town of Beslan, where militants seized a school in 2004 and took more than 1,000 people hostage, most of them children. More than 330 hostages died, most of them when federal troops stormed the school.
Seagal had invited the delegation to visit Chechnya, but the trip was called off in part because U.S. House rules would have prevented the congressmen from flying on his private plane, Rohrabacher said.
The Kremlin has given Kadyrov lavish funding and political carte blanche to fight terrorism since he came to power in 2005. Activists accuse him and his feared security forces of staggering abuses, including torture, kidnappings and murder.
“All these accusations are thrown around,” said Seagal, who was given a lavish welcome in Kadyrov’s palace. “Is there any evidence? Has he been indicted?” Cohen said he had refused to go to Chechnya for these reasons. But Rohrabacher, who chairs the U.S. Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, said the United States should be more understanding of the threats facing Kadyrov and Putin.
“If you are in the middle of an insurrection with Chechnya, and hundreds of people are being killed and there are terrorist actions taking place and kids are being blown up in schools, yeah, guess what, there are people who overstep the bounds of legality,” he said.
While the rule of law is important, Rohrabacher added, “We shouldn’t be describing people who are under this type of threat, we shouldn’t be describing them as if they are Adolf Hitler or they’re back to the old Communism days.”
Rohrabacher and King were full of praise for Russian Orthodox Christian traditions after attending a service at Moscow’s main cathedral on Sunday morning. The cathedral became a rallying point for Putin supporters and the opposition alike last year when punk group Pussy Riot staged an impromptu protest against Putin’s merging of church and state, earning them worldwide notoriety and a two-year prison sentence for “hooliganism.”
“It’s hard to find sympathy for people who would do that to people’s faith,” King said. The United States and European Union have condemned the jailing of the Pussy Riot members. Rohrabacher, however, lamenting the “sinister way” U.S. politicians discuss Russia and Putin, said he wished they would have more appreciation for the changes that have taken place.
“Most of my friends in Congress don’t even know that the churches are open now,” he said. The congressional delegation also included Michele Bachmann, but she made no public appearances and left before Sunday’s news conference. The Minnesota Republican arrived in Russia last week shortly after announcing that she would not seek reelection in 2014.