A killer slips through

The gunman who carried out the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history had twice come to the attention of federal law enforcement authorities. He was placed on a terrorist watch list, investigated, interrogated and determined not to be a threat. That assessment proved horribly and tragically wrong. But that obvious-in-hindsight assessment is only the beginning of a conversation, not the conclusion, and certainly not an indictment.

The FBI has said it will conduct a review of its past investigations into Omar Mateen to determine if mistakes were made or signs missed that could have prevented Sunday's rampage in Orlando.

Posing the question of whether things should have been done differently, FBI Director James Comey said, "So far, I think the honest answer is: I don't think so." If in fact procedures were followed and no obvious clues missed, the questions become more difficult. Are the procedures adequate? Were allegations of domestic abuse known and factored in, and should they have been? Can better predictive methodologies be developed?

We ask these questions with appreciation of the difficulty of the job. Comey characterized the challenge of detecting lone-wolf terrorists as not only looking for "needles in a nationwide haystack" but also figuring out "which pieces of hay might someday become needles."

Moreover, on alternate weeks, the FBI finds itself criticized for being too intrusive, overusing sting operations that defense lawyers characterize as entrapment and maintaining long watch lists of people who have been convicted of no crime. Americans expect law enforcement to protect them from danger --while also respecting their privacy and their right to dissent.

Nonetheless, this is the third time in recent years that someone who came under FBI scrutiny, including the Boston Marathon bombers, ended up carrying out a later attack. Are there lessons to be learned from how someone known to authorities went on to kill? We should not expect perfection, but we should expect the FBI to be rigorous in its review of this case.

Editorial on 06/18/2016