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Duly Noted

Friday, May 31, 2013, 4:27 pm

A Deadly FBI Screw-Up

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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(Cliff/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Ibragim Todashev, a 27-year-old Chechen immigrant with ties to the Boston bombing suspects, was shot and killed during an interrogation in Orlando, Fla. on May 22.

Todashev was being questioned in his home by an FBI agent and two other officers about a 2011 triple murder in Massachusetts. One of the victims was reportedly the best friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the late Boston bombing suspect. Tamerlan was rumored to have been involved in Massachusetts murders. 

Conor Friesdorf summarizes the conflicting media reports that came out in the wake of the shooting. On May 22nd, the FBI officially announced that there had been a shooting and that the matter was under review. That evening, the AP cited three anonymous law enforcement sources--who might or might not be FBI sources strategically leaking the Bureau’s version of events--as saying that Todashev was shot because he attacked one of his interrogators with a knife. By May 29, an Orlando TV station was quoting unnamed FBI sources as saying that Ibragim was unarmed, but lunged at the FBI agent, who feared for his life because he thought the Ibragim was going for the agent’s gun, or a samurai sword in the room. Other media outlets ran similar stories based on the accounts of anonymous officials.

The FBI has been accused of “changing its story” after the bombing, but it’s not clear which, if any, of the anonymous FBI sources quoted in the press were speaking with the blessing of the Bureau. That’s the trouble with anonymous sources. Maybe the story is changing because the official version of events is changing, or maybe it’s changing because different outlets are talking to different people who think they know different things.

By definition, the officials conducting the interview screwed up and lost control of the situation. They were responsible for maintaining a safe and controlled environment, and they obviously failed to do so. Subjects are not supposed to die during interviews. Interviewing 101: If you cause the death of your subject during the interview, you fail as an interviewer. It may also turn out that the officers used excessive force in their attempts to subdue the suspect.

This incident calls for a full and independent investigation. Given the high-profile nature of the case and the potential civil rights implications of shooting an unarmed Muslim immigrant, the FBI should not be trusted to investigate its own. 

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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