“If you tie yourself to national security, you get funding and you get exemptions on disclosure cases.”
When the FBI was formed in 1908, it was established as the national detective bureau charged with the investigation of interstate crimes, offenses against federal property and personnel, and violations of federal statute. The federal police, as it was envisioned, was supposed to be a shining example of law enforcement, unencumbered by local politics or bureaucratic machinations.
As it turned out, the FBI failed to live up to the lofty aspiration imagined for it, in part due to the egos of the very people that created it. But the FBI has always been “the national police.” In countless media representations, the FBI represented the highest example of law enforcement in America. A number of nations have modeled their national police on the FBI — including the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police. For many, the FBI special agent is the definitive detective.
It would seem, however, that the FBI has gotten out of the law enforcement business — at least, primarily. According to the FBI’s latest fact sheet, the agency’s primary mission has changed from “law enforcement” to “national security.”
As reflected in the FBI’s mission, counterterrorism is the FBI’s first objective: “As an intelligence-driven and a threat-focused national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities, the mission of the FBI is to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”
The FBI’s involvement in counterterrorism is nothing new. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover investigated alleged and factual cases of espionage against the U.S. Additionally, under the domestic surveillance Counter-Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, Hoover attacked key members of the Civil Rights Movement — including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — on allegations of communist subversion. FBI actions under COINTELPRO included the alleged assassination of political activists, the tapping of Congress members’ telephones and numerous investigations into private citizens’ lives.
Post-Hoover, the FBI reallocated its counterintelligence resources into its violent crimes unit. Under the Clinton administration, the FBI created its Computer Investigations and Infrastructure Threat Assessment Center, and National Infrastructure Protection Center in order to address computer crimes and to expand its capabilities for electronic surveillance in national security investigations.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Robert Mueller, the newly-sworn in FBI director, restructured the FBI to make crime countering the FBI’s top priority, including the prevention of terrorism, countering foreign intelligence operations, addressing cyber security threats and other high-tech crimes. However, the FBI gave no special elevation to counterterrorism over its other functions until 2004, when the 9/11 Commission blamed the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency for not pursuing intelligence reports that could have prevented the September 11 attacks. Since then, the FBI has agreed to most of the commission’s recommendations, including oversight from the newly-formed Directorate of National Intelligence.
From 2001 to 2009, the increase in number of counterterrorism cases the FBI took on directly correlated to the decline in other crime cases the FBI investigated, particularly white-collar crimes. The number of white-collar and computer-crime convictions spiked under the Obama administration.
Considering that the FBI changed missions years ago, the timing of this public recognition of direction seems odd. Some have argued that the change in public stance is in part due to the blowback the agency received in failing to prevent last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. Others, such as national security lawyer Kel McClanahan, argue that affiliating itself to national security may spare the FBI from sequestration.
“If you tie yourself to national security, you get funding and you get exemptions on disclosure cases,” McClanahan told Foreign Policy. “You get all the wonderful arguments about how if you don’t get your way, buildings will blow up and the country will be less safe.”
In light of a lengthy line of terror stings that proved — upon secondary investigation — to be entrapments, this move from investigation to prevention and response reflects the often-repeated theorem: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”