I Spy

Welcome to the FBI's new mission.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I joined the FBI as a special agent around 1985, as the bureau was tackling the problem of endemic espionage within the U.S. intelligence community. During that time — the "year of the spy" — the bureau’s focus was on arrests and prosecutions. That was then; this is now. Today, it bills itself as a national security agency.

Foreign Policy tackled this very identity issue on Jan. 5, when The Cable‘s John Hudson reported on a recent edit made to the bureau’s fact sheet, which accompanies its Freedom of Information Act responses.

"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," Hudson writes, despite his stated observation that the "FBI’s creeping advance into the world of counterterrorism is nothing new."

His article seems to suggest two things: that the FBI altered the language this summer in an attempt to ensure additional national security funding during a time of diminishing budgetary resources, and, quoting a historian of the FBI, that the FBI sought cover from the "current political climate," a clear reference to the recent imbroglio involving the National Security Agency (NSA).

The truth is that the FBI is and always has been an agency devoted to protecting America’s national security. The FBI cut its national security teeth in the 1920s working sedition cases under the guidance of its new 29-year-old acting director, J. Edgar Hoover. By the 1930s, the bureau had labeled certain crimes to be those of national importance and national security — cases like wire fraud across jurisdictions, bank robbers crossing state lines, and interstate transport of anything illegal, from stolen cars and cattle to prostitutes. Congress legislated regarding these types of criminal cases and designated them as exclusive FBI matters because of the bureau’s nationwide legal jurisdiction. The same occurred with cases affecting national security.

With the passage of the 1947 National Security Act that created both the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA, the FBI became one of the original 16 members of the United States Intelligence Community and an official national security agency.

Since the bureau’s inception, all its investigative programs have been congressionally funded. In 1957, when Hoover discovered that La Cosa Nostra held its mafia meetings in upstate New York and was running rackets across the Eastern Seaboard, he prioritized the organized crime program; the breakup of the mafia group became a primary function of his bureau. How did he pull this off? Congress, at the request of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, funded hundreds of additional agents to work organized crime.

And the list goes on. In the 1960s, because Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration had made civil rights legislation a priority, Congress heavily funded the FBI’s criminal program. Unsurprisingly then, it took Hoover no time at all to establish a new FBI field office in Jackson, Mississippi, after three civil rights workers there went missing in 1964 (with suspected law enforcement involvement). When bank failures became a national crisis in the late 1980s, Congress funded a significant increase in agents assigned to tackle white-collar crime, making the issue the bureau’s No. 1 criminal investigative program; this remained the case until the 9/11 attacks.

See the trend? While the FBI recommends investigative priorities to Congress, it is Congress that ultimately funds the bureau’s programs through the budgetary process. Without specific funding, the FBI cannot permanently transfer agents from one investigative program to another

It is important to note that, above all else, the FBI remains an investigative agency. The FBI achieves true national security — meaning the prevention of a terrorist attack — through criminal investigations, not solely through the collection of intelligence information. Any criminal investigation can potentially lead to information on terrorist activity. That is, the primary objective in preventing terrorism within the United States is the investigation of the underlying crime and conspiracy.

The problem isn’t that the FBI designates national security as its primary function. The real problem is that Congress, through the budgetary process and the power of the purse, mandated counterterrorism as the top-funded FBI investigative program after 9/11. Congress is now reluctant to point the bureau toward anything other than national security for the same reason that Congress is unwilling to spearhead the dismantlement of the NSA’s metadata collection program. That is, it fears that if another major terrorist attack were to happen on U.S. soil — and taxpayers perceived that Congress had de-emphasized national security through the funding of different FBI investigative priorities — it would ultimately be held responsible by the American people for having reduced the bureau’s ability to respond to terrorism.

The FBI’s investigative strength has always been its ability to shift manpower and resources from program to program for short periods of time to address changes in national priorities, while never changing its primary function. But that changed in September 2001, when nearly all investigation into law enforcement or criminal programs were deferred, as practically all of the FBI’s special agents were following leads generated by PENTTBOM and TRADEBOM, the code names for the al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

Experienced criminal agents joined forces with the national security and counterintelligence cadre to investigate terrorism. When the bureau was finally able to get back to a reduced number of criminal investigations, many agents stayed in the counterterrorism field — and not just in the field offices, but also overseas as legal attachés assigned to various embassies. They traded in their fedoras and cigars for computers and tradecraft manuals. A significant number of these agents were former criminal agents who rose to the highest national security executive levels of the FBI.

Today, several important crimes — public and political corruption, complex financial institution fraud, bank failures, mortgage and securities fraud, to name a few — remain out of the reach of local law enforcement and are purely FBI matters. Because intelligence and national security are emphasized, however, the bureau is understaffed to address these significant matters. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, health-care fraud could soon dominate FBI investigations. Perhaps only then will Congress see fit to reallocate agent personnel from national security back to these investigative programs.

Although I don’t agree with Hudson’s take-away, his journalistic instincts to consider the change in language was right: The FBI used to be a place where individualized expertise in every field existed on every squad, in every field office. But the bureau can recover this expertise. All it takes is the will of the people and congressional direction.

There is little reason for people to lose hope just because the FBI changed a few words on its fact sheet. The power is in the hands of the people to lobby Congress and actually identify what are today’s national security issues. Maybe Congress will listen. Because if it listens, so will the FBI.

David Gomez is a former FBI counterterrorism executive in Seattle and current senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He consults on operational and information security as a security strategist.

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