Bombing suspect friend dead: Report on FBI shooting leaves some unconvinced

Bombing suspect friend, Ibragim Todashev, was fatally shot by the FBI during an interrogation last May. Civil rights groups, among others, aren’t satisfied with the official summation of the incident, released Tuesday.

Orange County Corrections Department/AP/File
This May 4, 2013 file photo provided by the Orange County Corrections Department in Orlando, Fla., shows Ibragim Todashev after his arrest for aggravated battery in Orlando.

Florida state prosecutor Jeffrey Ashton says he had qualms about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s handling of the Ibragim Todashev affair, but still found justifiable the interrogation shooting of the Chechen street fighter in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Others, including civil rights groups, remain unconvinced that the federal agency has told the whole story of how a valuable witness in a major terror probe ended up dead while being questioned.

In the Boston Herald, columnist Peter Gelzinis calls the 161-page Todashev report released Tuesday by Mr. Ashton a “whitewash.” He continues, “Once again the FBI waltzes away from a mess. No harm, no foul.”

After a 10-month wait during which the FBI blocked the release of a medical examiner’s report, the official summation of the May 22, 2013, shooting gave Americans their first inside look at how, and perhaps why, Mr. Todashev died. The summation, which has police (and only police) eyewitness accounts, includes both Ashton’s report and a separate Justice Department document.

While most law enforcement experts doubt there’s anything more sinister behind Todashev’s death than a botched operation, the incident continues to dog US intelligence agencies under fire from Congress for failing to connect dots that could have prevented the Boston bombings. Meanwhile, Todashev’s father has called the agents on scene “bandits.”

“The central question of whether the killing of Mr. Todashev was justified remains frustratingly unanswered,” Baylor Johnson, an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman, told NPR after the report was released Tuesday.

To be sure, many of the complaints amount to 20/20 hindsight by established critics of the FBI. For one thing, if the FBI agent and two Massachusetts state troopers leading what became a 4-1/2 hour interrogation had followed different protocol – subduing, or handcuffing, Todashev, for example – then things may have turned out differently.

The Ashton report suggests that the attack came when one of the officers “deviated from plan” and stepped outside to make a midnight call. That instantly gave an agitated Todashev – who had just confessed to being an accomplice to bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a 2011 triple homicide in Waltham, Mass. – opportunity to take action.

Officers who had watched Todashev’s amateur fighting videos told investigators that they were amazed by his speed as he attacked, wielding what appeared to be a broom handle. “There was no doubt in my mind that Todashev intended to kill” everybody in the room, the FBI agent who shot him explained in a written statement.

Ashton did not commend the handling of Todashev, only finding no malice in the FBI agent's actions. In instances of whether police are justified to shoot in fluid and volatile situations, courts have found that it is malice, not poor judgment, that can make such a shooting unjustifiable, and thus criminal.

The Todashev shooting has given rise to multiple conspiracy theories, which have only been fueled by the FBI’s behavior – including its role in squelching information such as an autopsy report while leaking other details. Also documented: It pushed to have several Todashev associates and friends fast-tracked for deportation or green-card revocation.

But the extent to which Todashev posed an actual threat – including what, exactly, he was wielding – remains core to concerns that critics say the report doesn’t answer.

“[T]he fact there were so many conflicting accounts of the weapon created doubts, questions and accusations that the use of force was unjustified, or what police call ‘a bad shoot,’ ” writes David Boeri on WBUR.org.

There are other head-scratchers. Ashton suggests that the FBI’s refusal to allow him to personally question the agent who killed Todashev “somewhat complicated the analysis.” The Florida medical examiner’s office suggested that there was more than one shooter, but the FBI and Ashton dispute that.

The FBI has noted that the lives of those involved in the shooting have been threatened and that it can’t comment on ongoing investigations into both the Boston bombings and the triple homicide. The ACLU, meanwhile, has vowed to pressure officials in Boston and Washington for a more independent investigation of Todashev’s death.

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