A New Mission

Without any fanfare, the FBI has changed its own mission. Where before, the FBI focused its efforts primarily on interstate law enforcement, activities such as the robbing of banks, white-collar crime, and kidnapping, now the FBI states that its primary mission is national security. Specifically, the FBI focuses on counterterrorism, counter intelligence (finding and eliminating spies), and cyber security. The shift apparently happened sometime in the summer of 2013, without fanfare, and possibly without direction from either the president or the attorney general. It is possible that the reason for the shift was bureaucratic and funding-related, rather than reflective of any sudden change in direction by the FBI’s internal leaders. That is to say, Congress might be more amenable to making a larger appropriation to the FBI if it can classify that appropriation as related to national security rather than law enforcement. Or, maybe, this is an accurate reflection of what the FBI is actually doing with its resources.

Either way, it seems ominous.

 
Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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38 thoughts on “A New Mission

  1. Considering that J. Edgar saw the Civil Rights movement as a Communist-inspired threat to National Security and acted accordingly, I’m sure he would be just peachy with this.

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  2. The FBI is an internal–domestic–police force. This shift is yet another step in our trend toward tyranny. And by tyranny I don’t mean a government that doesn’t let us smoke or drink giant cups of soda, but a government that is not in any meaningful way bound by the rule of law in its relations with citizens.

    The 2008 election of Obama had many of my friends optimistic about the expansion of national security powers under GWB being rolled back. I wasn’t, and it’s one of the few times in my life I regret being right. My only hope has been that my friends to the left of me have become more open to the suggestion that this growth of the national security state cannot be corrected through normal democratic means.

    It doesn’t matter a bit who we vote for now–anyone who makes it through the primary process to become their party’s presidential nominee is guaranteed to be the kind of person who will advance the power of the national security state, or at best retain whatever baseline power s/he inherited. Our representatives are unlikely to do anything about it, either. The words “national security” trump all, and few legislators are willing to take the risk of rebutting that.

    Without substantive constitutional change, we’re all doomed. We’ll have same-sex marriage and pot, but that will just be bread and circuses to distract us from the Black Marias prowling the streets.

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    • As a liberal, I’m going to quibble with this. There is no correlation between centralized and decentralized government and tyranny. Some of the most tyrannical government acts have occured and still occur on the state and local level in the United States. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian states are about as un-tyrinnical and centralized as possible. The main reason why the United States is in danger to becoming a police state is that its popular with large swathes of the voters in the name of safety.

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      • The problem is that many Americans really don’t care about the civil liberties abuses caused in the name of National Security. The Red Scare after WWI was completely unconstitutional but in the minds of Protestant America, the various leftists were enemies of the Republic. The same was true during the McCarthy period or the War on Terror now. Too many Americans see the FBI or other organizations abuse of civil liberties as being for the good of the republic. Unless Americans care in mass, change will not happen.

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      • What sais at 1:00 p.m. is why I find the switch ominous, regardless of whether it’s a bureaucratic bid for funding or an accurate descriptor of the leadership’s vision, or some blend of both.

        The label “national security” ought not to be a substantive license to disregard the law; it should be a signal that the government claims to legitimately have something important to do, and we should think about that carefully. After all, the government might be correct in its claim.

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      • James, my quibble would be a different one: the word “growth”. Changing the mission of the FBI doesn’t necessarily entail an increase here (or does it?) regarding the scope of governmental powers. It could be that there specific powers remain the same under the new mission and the reason for redefining that mission has to do with funding (or even bureaucratic nonsense).

        I’m not entirely convinced that’s right, but I suspect it has more to do with expanding its size (in terms or manpower and resource allocations) consistent with already existingpowers.

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      • Frankly tho, I’m not gonna push too hard in any defense of the FBI or the Obama Admin about this type of thing since this is one area where I’m in almost complete agreement with (moderate!) libertarians.

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      • Stillwater,

        A shift from traditional policing to a national security focus is a growth in the national security power of the state.

        I’m not focusing on “growth in government” here (Obamacare, for example, is not at issue), just growth in the national security power/emphasis of the state.

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      • Changing the mission of the FBI doesn’t necessarily entail an increase here (or does it?) regarding the scope of governmental powers.

        How has law enforcement been doing for the last couple of decades when it comes to crime? Given that it looks like the War on Drugs is (finally) being examined seriously, what’s our best guess for the next couple of decades?

        It seems to me that crime is going down, down and will continue to go down, down.

        Law enforcement doesn’t seem to be a growth industry.

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      • How has law enforcement been doing for the last couple of decades when it comes to crime?

        How is that a response to what I wrote? My comment was a question regarding the already existing powers and authorizations held by the FBI and how those powers and permissions are changed by redefining the mission.

        Your comment doesn’t address any of that.

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      • Oh, sorry. I suspect that changing the mission will allow them to maintain (and even expand) their already existing powers and authorizations.

        If they kept the mission as law enforcement, they might be faced with not only power/authorization oversight that says “you guys are doing great with what you have!” but worse: a *BUDGET* that says that.

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      • bureaucracy expandeth ever, even when it’s law enforcement and therefore the expansion is ominous.

        Here’s some stuff:

        The current official mission statement from the FBI website:

        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.

        Here’s 2002 quote from FBI director Robert Mueller:

        “Even though our nation faces great challenges from those who seek to destroy our freedoms, the basic mission of the FBI remains constant. First, and foremost, the FBI must protect and defend the United States against terrorism and foreign intelligence threats. Second, the FBI must uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States. And third, the FBI must provide and enhance assistance to its federal, state, municipal, and international partners.

        While the FBI’s core missions remain constant, its priorities have shifted since the previous FBI Strategic Plan was issued in 1998 and the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. Under the new alignment, the FBI’s focus is to: [list of ten priorities]”

        I won’t say it’s not mission creep, but it seems to have been going on for a long time.

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      • Burt, lots of Americans have long-believed contradictory things about civil liberties and civil rights. We pride ourserlves on free speech, the right to trial, etc., but we long have had a problem with people that argued things contrary to “White Protestant America” and patriotism. Until we solve this problem than we are going to keep having the same issues with national security.

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      • This is also interesting (from Mueller’s speech to COngress):

        The FBI will need to sustain its present level of commitment to combating and preventing terrorism for the foreseeable future and be sufficiently flexible to quickly shift whatever additional resources are necessary to meet any counterterrorism investigative demand that materializes. These 518 agents will be taken primarily from FBI drug investigations (400), although there will be some shift from white-collar (59) and violent crimes (59 agents).

        The decision to propose reducing the FBI’s level of involvement in drug investigations came after careful consultation with FBI Special Agents in Charge (SACs)…

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    • I don’t disagree, and I’ve been on board with that pessimistic outlook even before I started reading your blog posts. I wrote pretty much the same thing at my own blog at the time Obama was running and right after he won the election.

      But what “non-democratic” means are available? You allude to some sort of “substantive constitutional change,” but if you mean an amendment, isn’t that democratic in that it requires a majoritarian solution (after the several minority veto-points our amendment process provides for)?

      Or are you referring to something else, such as a form of resistance or resurgent civil society that will place a check on the government’s pretensions?

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      • Pierre,

        I would prefer constitutional amendment. But I am skeptical that will happen in a timely manner. I foresee a continued growth in power, increasing abuses, increasing suffering borne for a long time, and increasing violent responses. My most optimistic outcome is no more violence than attended the collapse of the Soviet Union; my least optimistic outcome is that we follow Syria’s path.

        This is why Snowden cannot be pardoned, or a deal struck with him. He threatens the national security strength of the state by giving the people information about what that state was doing. I want to be clear about that–I think the damage done to our international espionage efforts is the public reason given for indicting Snowden and refusing to make a deal with him; I think the threat he poses to the national security state is the real reason.

        Let’s keep in mind–while we’re justifiably gung-hoing about Obama’s cautious-but-favorable-and-effective policy approach on gay rights–that Obama as President has refused to indict public officials who authorized torture, used the state secrets doctrine to keep injured parties from suing the government, has increased the use of drone strikes with little concern for collateral damage, has made a blanket claim of the authority to execute American citizens without trial (his statement did not exclude doing so on U.S. territory), and has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any of his predecessors.

        President Obama is not a man who takes challenges to the state’s power lightly.

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    • Unfortunately it’s nothing new for the FBI, unless you think spying on civil rights leaders and hounding actresses to death for having liberal politics were legitimate activities for a domestic police force.

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      • Agreed, but with the caveat that there is an advantage to the FBI doing it illegally. That leaves open the possibility of either putting a stop to it or seeking recompense when harmed. When it becomes formally official and legal, the constraints are radically diminished.

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      • For one I agree with you, James. That’s what’s been creeping me out for the past twelves years or so. The US has tortured people before, but they didn’t make it open policy or declare it to be legally justified. The US has engaged in military aggression before Iraq, but they at least pretended they had been attacked (the Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin); now they’ve simply declared that they have a right to attach anyone whose actions are contrary to their interests. The same with the national security state and unrestricted surveillance – except that for that, the government’s technological capacity has also increased massively relative to the past.

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      • Perhaps I’m being ignorant: does the proclamation Burt brought up have a different legal status than J. Edgar’s self-declared charter to oppose Communist subversion of all sorts (that is, including the kind that has nothing to do with Communism)? The things it specifies ( counterterrorism, counter intelligence, and cyber security) seem like reasonable targets for a national, domestic police force, if they’re pursued via legal, constitutional means.

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      • From where I’m sitting, it looks to me like the new “official” mission is actually a more accurate and honest expression of what the FBI has always been doing. Granted, after 9/11 they reshuffled the priorities a bit, but only that. It’s not like they’re engaging in any new nastiness. Just the same old garden variety stuff.

        So I look at it as a more accurate reflection of what the department actually does. And as they say, admitting you’re doing things the rest of us view as a problem is the first step in an intervention on your behalf.

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  3. On the one hand, there have been examples of domestic terrorism from radical groups and these should be investigated and preferably stopped before they happen. It would be ideal to prevent things like Oklahoma City or the Anarchist bombings that lead to the Palmer raids. Same with the KKK bombing that destroyed the Birhingham church.

    On the other hand, civil liberty demands that people be allowed to have radical politics if they so choose and COINTELPRO was horrible.

    In short, this is a very tricky situation as all issues in balancing liberty and safety are.

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    • “these should be investigated and preferably stopped before they happen”

      Do we have any evidence of these things being stopped before they happen?

      If we can’t even think of one incident that has been prevented, not even one, how much should we weigh the importance of stopping these things before they happen against the excesses of the agency (which we *CAN* point to)?

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      • You don’t get it, Jaybird. Our failure so far to preemptively stop terrorist attacks means we’re not emphasizing national security enough. With enough eavesdropping and enhanced interrogating, we’ll finally be able to keep the population safe.

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      • This does read back to Hanley’s Second Law though. Objectively examined the incentives for any elected or appointed public official are massively tilted towards increasing the security state apparatus (cover your ass). How does one correct that short of somehow transforming how the public and the media treat these kinds of threats?

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      • I was not advocating for what the FBI was going. Merely noting that there are serious incidents of domestic political terrorism and these incidents have effects. The Security and Liberty debate seems perpetually unwinnable or possible of nuance. It feels like the environmental debate that way. There is a whole range of options between the current NSA and FBI and TSA situation and nothing. Just like there is a whole range of options between “OMG we are doomed! Catastrohe!” environmentalism and “Relax! Everything is going to be a-okay!” climate change denialism.

        I am not sure what the middle ground is though. I will concede that. It shouldn’t be shocking that most people want a measure of security in the lives from the various slings and arrows whether economic (the social-safety net) or physical (crime and terrorism even if terrorism is rare). Sarcastically dismissing concerns about security is not going to help any cause. Though we seem to live in an age of dismissal over the concerns of the perceived opponent so maybe I am just old-fashioned and out of date.

        North brings up a good point about how all the incentives for elected officials are for more security over not because they will get the blame if another security attack occurs. This is not an especially original observation.

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