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The FBI’s License to Kill: Agents Have Been Deemed “Justified” in Every Shooting Since 1993

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New documents reveal the FBI has cleared its agents in every single shooting incident dating back two decades. According to The New York Times, from 1993 until today, FBI shootings were deemed justified in the fatal shootings of 70 people and the wounding of 80 others. Out of 289 shootings that were found to be deliberate, no agent was disciplined except for letters of censure in five cases. Even in a case where the bureau paid a shooting victim more than a million dollars to settle a lawsuit, the internal review did not find the agent who shot the man culpable. The issue of FBI accountability has recently re-emerged following last month’s fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev during questioning by agents in Orlando, Florida. He was reportedly unarmed. We speak to Charlie Savage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who co-reported the story.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As President Obama prepares to nominate James Comey today to head the FBI, the agency is facing new questions over how it handles shootings involving FBI agents. A new look at the FBI’s internal investigations has found the bureau has cleared its agents in every single shooting incident dating back two decades. According to The New York Times, from 1993 until today, FBI shootings were deemed justified in the fatal shootings of 70 people and the wounding of 80 others. Out of 289 shootings that were found to be deliberate, no agent was disciplined except for letters of censure in five cases. Even in a case where the bureau paid a shooting victim over a million dollars to settle a lawsuit, the internal review did not find the agent who shot the man culpable.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of FBI accountability has recently re-emerged following last month’s fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev during questioning by agents in Orlando, Florida. A Chechen native, Todashev who was interrogated over his ties to one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. The Washington Post and several TV news organizations reported he was unarmed, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.

Well, on Thursday, I spoke to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times who co-wrote the recent article called “The F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings.” I began by asking Charlie Savage to lay out what he found.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well before this recent shooting incident in Orlando, which remains murky—you said that the FBI admitted he wasn’t armed. That’s one story. Another version is, oh, he was—attacked an agent with a knife. And yet another one says he was brandishing a pole. All these, of course, cited to anonymous law enforcement officials, so who knows what happened in that room at this stage?

But well before that incident, I had been looking into FBI shooting incidents over many years. And, in fact, we filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the internal records of FBI shooting reviews—every time an agent pulls a trigger, they conduct an internal review of that incident—for all deliberate shootings dating back to 1993. And, of course, now it was suddenly very timely, because the FBI had just shot this man under very murky circumstances. And as typically the case when the FBI kills someone or shoots someone, local homicide detectives—in this case, the Orlando Police Department—are not conducting an independent investigation to try to figure out what happened; they defer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate itself.

And what this enormous pile of documents that we eventually obtained, all shooting—deliberate shooting incidents going back to 1993, showed was that in every instance in that 20-year span, so presumably for some time beyond that, but that’s all we have, where an FBI bullet hit somebody and either killed them or wounded them, that was deliberately fired, the agency cleared the agent of any wrongdoing, found that it was a justified shoot, a “good shoot,” in agent’s parlance. There were five supposed, what they would call “bad shoots,” where agents did get letters of censure for doing things like firing a warning shot above a crowd. None of those incidents, though, involved anyone getting hit by a bullet.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Savage, you quote Professor Samuel Walker, who teaches criminal justice, about the problem with this.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Yes. See, this is a professor who studies internal law enforcement investigations, and he said that this very low rate of finding bad shoots, basically zero when someone was actually hurt, or an animal, for that matter—a subset of these are shooting dogs that were menacing while serving an arrest warrant for something—was suspiciously low, in his words. But, of course, you don’t know that it means that in fact something was wrong; it’s just suspiciously low. And one of the problems in evaluating this document set—this is over over 2,000 pages of documents—is because, as I mentioned earlier, there’s very often, overwhelmingly often, with very few exceptions, no independently produced investigative report by some other authority where you could put the two reports side by side and see: Is this an accurate portrayal of what happened or not?

And, you know, there’s good reason to believe that the FBI would have a generally low rate of bad shootings, because unlike a city police force, FBI agents tend to be older, better trained, more experienced, and perhaps most importantly, they’re not patrolling the streets and responding to in-progress crimes and chaotic situations. When they go into sort of arresting people and so forth, it tends to be preplanned operations where they go in with overwhelming force, and that’s going to minimize chaos. And yet, they still killed or wounded 150 people over 20 years, and it’s kind of remarkable that not once in all that time, even in an instant where the bureau ended up paying over a million dollars to someone who was shot by an agent, did they find internally that that was not a justified shooting.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Savage, you referred in this piece to the settlement of a million dollars of a man shot in 2002. Can you describe that case?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Yes, and let me first preface this by saying why this is a case worth looking at. It’s not that this case is particularly, you know, different than others, although there are some oddities about it, but for—and it’s over a decade old. But what’s interesting about it is it’s a rare exception to the rule that there’s nothing to look at but the FBI’s own narrative of what happened. In this case, there was an independent investigation by a local police detective with the Anne Arundel County police, and there was a lawsuit that led to discovery before it was finally settled, and there were some additional investigations that were conducted as part of that litigation. And so, there was a lot of alternative information to put alongside the FBI’s own version of events to see at least whether they dovetailed or there were some discrepancies. And there were discrepancies.

So, this was a bizarre case. The FBI was looking for a bank robbery suspect that they thought was going to be coming by a convenience store in a white baseball cap in a car driven by his sister. And, unfortunately, another man fitting that description, who was innocent, Joseph Schultz, came by in a white baseball cap in a car driven by his girlfriend. And so the FBI thought he was the bank robbery suspect and chased the car down, turned on the sirens, swarmed around it, forced it over, surrounded it with guns, and just a moment later shot Mr. Schultz—an agent shot Mr. Schultz in the face. And he miraculously survived. The bullet deflected off of a piece of metal on the clip that holds the seat belt, and so it sort of hit his jaw rather than his head. But he underwent facial reconstruction surgery, and the FBI eventually paid $1.3 million—or, I guess I should say, taxpayers paid $1.3 million to him to settle that lawsuit.

And yet, internally, the FBI deemed this to have been a good shoot. And the internal report shows actually that one member of the panel that was looking at this actually didn’t think so, but he was outvoted by the rest of them, who said that the totality of circumstances surrounding this incident, including that it was a high-risk stop, showed that it was—they could not fault the agent for pulling the trigger.

But when you look at the FBI’s narrative that was submitted to that panel for review and then you put it alongside these alternatives, you see that in a series of small but important ways, the narrative omitted information or exaggerated information in a way that made it much more sympathetic to the agent who pulled the trigger than these alternative reports, including the one by this police detective, who was a neutral party, obviously, looked like.

So, for example, the FBI report spends a full page describing what happened after they turned on the siren and the lights until they finally pulled over the car. They made it sound like it was a very extended chase. They talk about how the car rapidly accelerated, and the FBI agents had to pull up alongside it and shouted over and over and over again, “Pull over!” and finally brought it to rest maybe a hundred yards away, “approximately 100 yards away.” That was a quote. And then, when you look at the alternative reports, though, first of all, the—a forensic crash reconstruction specialist said that the car could have been going no more than 12 miles an hour. The police detective noted that it was in a merge lane, so it would have had to accelerate a little bit. And an internal sketch created by the FBI, but not included in this narrative, put the car stopped just 142 feet from the intersection, not a hundred yards, so less than half the distance. And so, the FBI’s report created this sense of quite a chase that would have made it more reasonable to assume that the person in the car was a desperate and dangerous person.

And another example is, the FBI’s report that was sent to this review group did not contain anything from the statement by the victim, and it did not flag that a crucial fact was in dispute. The crucial fact was: How did this guy move before the agent shot him? In the FBI’s report, it says that the agent who shot him said, “Show me your hands.” Instead, he moved. In fact, he moved down and to his left, and so he thought he was reaching for a gun or something and shot him to eliminate the threat to himself and to fellow law enforcement officials. And that is what that guy said, that agent. But the victim said, no, he had been moving to the right, because another agent was simultaneously shouting, “Open the door!” and he was listening to that agent. And so, you know, what is true is not knowable, but the fact that this was a disputed fact is relevant, and yet that was not put in the FBI’s narrative. It only came out because of these alternative investigations, which the review panel, which deemed this to be a good shoot, did not see.


CHARLIE SAVAGE: And so, that, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Joseph Schultz said that he was responding to another officer telling him to open the door. Is that right?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: That’s right. So, he said, “The guy was saying, 'Open the door,' so I was reaching to my right to open the door,” as opposed to the agent who shot him who said he saw him reaching down and to the left—again, not knowable at this stage which of those two accounts is true, but the relevant issue is the FBI’s internal review panel that deemed this a good shoot didn’t have that information in front of them, in the narrative, at least, that was prepared by the shooting incident review team.

Now, again, this is more than a decade ago. This is one incident. And it’s not knowable, to me, at least, at this stage, whether this is in aberration, or is this something that happened more often, because the overwhelming majority of the time, there is no alternative investigation, there is no lawsuit that doesn’t get dismissed right away by a judge for, you know, a motion for summary judgment without reaching the stage of discovery and having this kind of evidence collected. And, of course, most of the time, the people who are being shot are in fact criminal suspects; they are the people that were—you know, the drug dealer or whoever, who was going to go and be arrested. And so, there’s not a lot of sort of public sympathy, I think, or interest in the judiciary in looking at those cases. The oddness of this one particular case where there was a totally innocent victim overcame those hurdles, convinced the Anne Arundel Police Department that they wanted to do their own investigation, convinced the judge to let it—and the courts to let it get to discovery, and that’s how we know that in this case something was odd.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlie Savage, you said you got over 2,100 pages from the FBI. Did you uncover any information about the killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the 72-year-old Puerto Rican independence activist who was shot dead by the FBI in 2005? And according to an autopsy, he bled to death after being hit with a single bullet. Officials didn’t enter his home until the following day, many hours after he was shot. He was wanted by the FBI for his role in a 1983 bank heist. Did you see anything about him?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: You know, I did not look carefully at that case. I’m not sure if that’s in this segment of documents or not. I’ve put them all up on the—our Times website, and I invite any viewers who know anything about particular incidents going back in 1993 to go look at that and see if they think that the FBI’s internal narrative matches their understanding of what happened. There are a handful of incidents that did not go through this process. The Justice Department’s attorney—sorry, inspector general has the right to take away a shooting incident investigation from the FBI at the onset. And there was one from Puerto Rico. I’m not sure if that was the one or if it involved a police officer who was shot, from about five or six years ago, that wasn’t in this document set because the IG had done his own report, which is on their website, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we did a search of your—of the documents you put online, and this is not in those more than 2,100 pages.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: That may be why, because they—because the IG had pulled it out for their own—their own look.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage, Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He co-wrote the recent article headlined “The F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. When we come back, drones over the United States. Stay with us.

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