Last month an FBI agent killed Ibragim Todashev, a man who was friends with the dead Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and very well might have had information tying him to a triple murder to better explain the marathon attack. There were many conflicting accounts of that night, all of which led to the question of why a house full of law enforcement officials used lethal force against an apparently unarmed man who was about to peacefully sign a confession as Tsarnaev's accomplice. If past statistics of the agency's internal examinations hold, expect the FBI to fully justify Todashev's killing — even though it's taking a suspiciously long time to do so.
The New York Times's Charlie Savage and Michael Schmidt have your stark FBI statistic and conspiracy theorist fodder of the day (emphasis ours), as a result of their four-year investigation:
[F]rom 1993 to early 2011, F.B.I. agents fatally shot about 70 'subjects' and wounded about 80 others — and every one of those episodes was deemed justified, according to interviews and internal F.B.I. records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
So, essentially, the FBI says that the FBI has never made a mistake in the agency's 70 or so deadly shootings in the past eighteen years. And the key word here is "justified." The bureau's policy, as Savage and Schmidt explain, "allows deadly force if agents fear that their lives or those of fellow agents are in danger." But there are scant details of what the threshold of "danger" entails. If the FBI is after a suspect, isn't there some implicit danger in that already? And that leads to the most pertinent question: What makes an FBI kill justified?
Indeed, the FBI's own people kill people, the FBI's own people tend to take over investigations after the killing, and then the FBI's own people are the ones who deem whether or not a mistake was made. And many of the rest of us people don't have the Freedom of Information Act skills that Savage possesses.
Tim Murphy, a former deputy director of the FBI who conducted some investigations of agency shootings during a 23-year career, told Savage and Schmidt the agence believes that all the mistake-free shootings are due to agents being better, older, and more experienced than police officers — and that those better agents are involved in planned operations as opposed to more random ones.
In the case of Todashev, there are still plenty of questions. In the initial reports, there were varying accounts of whether or not he was armed. Todashev was first reported to be wielding a knife, while some accounts had him stabbing an agent, and later the leaked news reports about the knife — or even that he was wielding a sword — were walked back by law enforcement officials. The FBI has not officially said whether or not the was armed. And the agency has declined to describe the events that led to the May 22 shooting of the 27-year-old ethnic Chechen near Universal Studios in Orlando. Nor have officials really explained how this all happened in a house full of FBI agents and other law enforcement officials when the FBI is supposed to be so good at using lethal force these days.
The Boston Globe's Maria Sacchetti explains that protocol is out of step with the way the agency usually treats shootings, citing a deadly FBI shooting in Illinois that occurred 12 days before the Todashev case. "Within 24 hours, the FBI issued a press release saying agents shot and killed Tony Starnes, 45, when he allegedly rammed an agent’s vehicle with a stolen Honda Civic," Sacchetti reported.
Savage and Schmidt did find some punishments had been doled out: Of the 289 deliberate FBI shootings in the time frame which their FOIA requests examined, they found five "bad shoots." None of those left anyone wounded, and the typical punishment was adding "letters of censure to agents' files."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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