THERE IS no greater threat to the legitimacy of the U.S. political system, at home and abroad, than the perception that an obsession with terrorism and other threats has given rise to an unaccountable American national security apparatus. Much of this perception reflects hyperbole from those who do not understand the U.S. system and the threats it faces, or who do understand but wish the United States ill. Yet many of those who have lost trust in the U.S. government have good-faith concerns about genuine issues — such as waterboarding under the Bush administration or the failure of Congress and President Obama to establish better oversight of the National Security Agency.
It is with this latter group of good-faith critics in mind that the Obama administration must approach the troubling matter of Ibragim Todashev’s violent death at the hands, apparently, of an FBI special agent on May 22. An associate of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the late suspected mastermind of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, Mr. Todashev was shot several times, under murky circumstances, while being interrogated by the FBI in his Orlando apartment. He was reportedly suspected of involvement in a separate triple homicide that may also have been perpetrated by Mr. Tsarnaev. Not only is his death regrettable, doubly so if it was avoidable, but it also silenced, forever, a witness who may have had much to tell about Mr. Tsarnaev’s alleged criminal and terrorist careers.
According to the sketchy reports that have emerged since, Mr. Todashev, 27, who had a history of arrests for violent offenses, suddenly attacked his FBI questioner, who fired in self-defense. But the conflicting and downright strange leaked accounts — some indicated that Mr. Todashev had a knife or a sword, others that he merely knocked over a table — have been more than enough to fuel reasonable suspicions, let alone the multiple conspiracy theories reverberating globally via the Internet.
FBI Director James B. Comey promised a thorough investigation, which he says has been completed and which he is “eager” to release following final review by the civil rights division of the Justice Department. This relatively swift inquiry represents progress over many much slower internal investigations the FBI has carried out in the past, which have almost always exonerated the bureau’s special agents. It is especially welcome that Florida State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton is conducting a parallel inquiry that may serve to balance that of the FBI. Mr. Ashton has promised a report by the end of this month.
Whatever the truth is, federal and state authorities need to lay it before the public, fully and transparently. The FBI’s reputation, and the country’s, require nothing less.