The FBI, the NSA, and the Daunting Task of True Reform

Last summer, after the in-FBI-custody shooting of Ibragim Todashev, a friend of the elder Boston bomber, the Bureau told the same story they have been telling since 1993 – this was justified. Furthermore, documents acquired by The New York Times last June showed that there were more than 150 FBI shootings by agents in the last 20 years – almost half fatal – and every single one was ruled justified after internal investigations.

There was some outcry after this Times revelation, because it sounds impossibly rosy a conclusion. (The agency whose agent killed Randy Weaver’s unarmed wife while she held her baby at Ruby Ridge went from mother-murderers in 1992 directly into a flawless 20-year justified shooting streak? Hrmph.) But though these figures raised some alarm, an endless parade of National Security Agency (NSA) leak revelations and other signs of the dangerous state of the federal government distracted the public from much lingering alarm over the FBI. There are simply too many instances of federal (and state, and local) surveillance, or shootings, or dirty dealings for most of us to even track, much less know how to fix.

This week the Boston Globe finally revealed the identity of the FBI agent who shot Todashev as Aaron McFarlane, 41. McFarlane, turns out is a former Oakland, California police officer who had a concerning and controversial career at that concerning and controversial police department. Shooting Todashev after he reportedly flipped a table and attacked agents with a metal broom handle could have been justified in the moment. But it’s a hell of a lot harder to feel sure about that after months of lying and evasion by the FBI about the case, as well as their continued refusal to release unredacted documents or Agent McFarlane’s name. (Counterpunch is much more skeptical of the entire Bureau story, including the self-defense excuse. Go read the whole piece.)

Whether you trust the FBI’s story (this time) or assume it’s a big fat lie, what we can always trust is that we shouldn’t ever assume the truth is being told. Certainly, the FBI shouldn’t be hiring cops from a police department that the feds themselves very nearly took over because of numerous rights violations and failures to introduce mandated reforms. But then the presence of a bad cop in federal law enforcement only hints at the larger problem of secrecy, spying, and a complete lack of accountability from nearly all government agencies. Again, this is all too big to comprehend, so how are we ever supposed to stop it?

The bipartisan-backed bill to reign in the NSA that was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last week is already being criticized by some civil liberties advocates as toothless. Ideally, some reform is better than none, but unfortunately shallow reform can sometimes be pointed to as a grand excuse to continue without more substantial, deep fixes. And at the end of the day, the big question is whether even eliminating the NSA will fix the stranglehold that national security, law and order, and militarization has over American society. For one such example of the conspiracy of spying redundancy, turns out the CIA and the FBI are building a database of millions of international financial transactions from Americans. It uses section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to give itself legality, just like most of the NSA spying does.

The killing of Todashev, as well as the presence of a rotten Oakland cop in the supposedly better trained, more prestigious FBI may be a relatively small matter in the realm of federal dirty dealings. (Or not, again, read the above Counterpunch piece.) The NSA looms large over most other institutions these days, for obvious and understandable reasons. But by the same token, what would happen in a world without what was once known as No Such Agency? Would Americans and foreigners both be free from surveillance and from their data being sucked up into great supercomputers? Unlikely. Again, there are endless redundancies. Last year, at the height of NSA leaks, we learned of the existence of parallel construction in certain criminal investigations. This generally meant that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been using classified information to begin investigations, and then sort of reverse engineers the thing so as to hide that the original source was a secret NSA tip-off or similar. The reasons this is dangerous should be obvious to anyone interested in transparency or fair trials. And the DEA has an international presence itself, as well as a history of blurring the lines between terrorist fighting and stopping drug trafficking. Maybe they can take up the NSA slack. And if not them, plenty more options!

After all, the Department of Homeland Security, born out of the frantic, post-9/11 scrabble to do something – now handle such grave national security concerns as counterfeit Super Bowl merchandise and stopping movie piracy. They also do their own spying, and they keep an eye on our already shockingly militarized borders.

Do the national security hand-wringers honestly believe that even if we killed the NSA, the burgeoning local police surveillance community – so often aided by DHS or Pentagon grants – wouldn’t fill in the gaps, at least eventually? The potential for full redundancy is all there, thanks to the desire for total control and total knowledge that goes beyond the NSA’s shameless admittances in their leaked Powerpoints. Maybe if the hawks were smart, they’d simply let the NSA die and then pick three brand new letters to take its place.

This isn’t meant to diminish journalists like Glenn Greenwald, or heroic whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake. NSA reform is a worthy fight indeed and it must be continued. Unfortunately, it’s only the start of an incomprehensibly vast effort to win back control, privacy, and choice for individuals in America. Where the hell do we even begin?

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.