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FBI: Primary Function Is Now 'National Security'

A vast domestic intelligence apparatus devoted to counterterrorism -- is that really what we want the FBI to be?
FBI: Primary Function Is Now 'National Security'
FBI mission statement. Image from: Foreign Policy

Sure, they're not the Stasi -- yet. But it's a slippery slope, and with the weight of all the intelligence agencies now devoted to sniffing out terrorism, they're going to want to justify that mission -- to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (Maybe we could convince them that banking crimes that crash the economy are also a matter of national security?)

This Foreign Policy piece disturbs me. When I was a reporter, I saw some egregious prosecutions. Don't tell yourself it can't happen to you, because all it takes to become a target is an ambitious agent who wants to make his bones and a run of bad luck:

The FBI's creeping advance into the world of counterterrorism is nothing new. But quietly and without notice, the agency has finally decided to make it official in one of its organizational fact sheets. Instead of declaring "law enforcement" as its "primary function," as it has for years, the FBI fact sheet now lists "national security" as its chief mission.

The changes largely reflect the FBI reforms put in place after September 11, 2001, which some have criticized for de-prioritizing law enforcement activities. Regardless, with the 9/11 attacks more than a decade in the past, the timing of the edits is baffling some FBI-watchers.

"What happened in the last year that changed?" asked Kel McClanahan, a Washington-based national security lawyer.

McClanahan noticed the change last month while reviewing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the agency. The FBI fact sheet accompanies every FOIA response and highlights a variety of facts about the agency. After noticing the change, McClanahan reviewed his records and saw that the revised fact sheets began going out this summer. "I think they're trying to rebrand," he said. "So many good things happen to your agency when you tie it to national security."

Although a spokesman with the agency declined to weigh in on the timing of the change, he said the agency is just keeping up with the times. "When our mission changed after 9/11, our fact sheet changed to reflect that," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson told Foreign Policy. He noted that the FBI's website has long-emphasized the agency's national security focus. "We rank our top 10 priorities and CT [counterterrorism] is first, counterintel is second, cyber is third," he said. "So it is certainly accurate to say our primary function is national security." On numerous occasions, former FBI Director Robert Mueller also emphasized the FBI's national security focus in speeches and statements.

FBI historian and Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis agreed that the changes reflect what's really happening at the agency, but said the timing isn't clear. "I can't explain why FBI officials decided to change the fact sheet... unless in the current political climate that change benefits the FBI politically and undercuts criticisms," he said. He mentioned the negative attention surrounding the FBI's failure in April to foil the bomb plot at the Boston Marathon by Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Whatever the reason, the agency's increased focus on national security over the last decade has not occurred without consequence. Between 2001 and 2009, the FBI doubled the amount of agents dedicated to counterterrorism, according to a 2010 Inspector's General report. That period coincided with a steady decline in the overall number of criminal cases investigated nationally and a steep decline in the number of white-collar crime investigations.

"Violent crime, property crime and white-collar crime: All those things had reductions in the number of people available to investigate them," former FBI agent Brad Garrett told Foreign Policy. "Are there cases they missed? Probably."

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