- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has decided to revise a controversial fact sheet that declared its primary mission to be “national security,” following criticism that the agency seemed to be moving away from its longstanding role as the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency.
The change emphasizes that stopping terrorism and battling more conventional domestic criminal activity are both “primary functions” of the FBI. The lightning-fast revision should dispel any notion that large bureaucratic organizations can only operate at a snail’s pace: The fact sheet was updated less than 48 hours after a report on it in Foreign Policy went viral last week. An FBI official confirmed that the change was a direct result of the article.
“It’s most accurate to say our primary functions are law enforcement and national security and that’s probably what it should’ve said all along,” FBI spokesman Paul Bresson told FP. “We’ve always been both.”
The changes come after FP reported Jan. 5 that that FBI fact sheets declared “the primary function of the FBI is national security.”
Two days later, on Jan. 7, the language changed to “the primary functions of the FBI are national security and law enforcement.”
“That has to be some kind of a record,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington-based attorney who alerted FP to the original fact sheet revisions. “Doing this so quickly and so obviously cover your ass-y seems beneath them.”
For some critics of the U.S. national security state, the FBI’s creeping advance into counterterrorism since the 9/11 attacks has come at the cost of investigating other illegal activities such as mortgage fraud, financial fraud, violent crime, and bank robberies. Those critics seized on last week’s report as evidence of the FBI’s further drift toward counterterrorism.
“If the FBI’s primary mission is ‘national security,’ what’s the Department of Homeland Security’s mission?” asked the Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack.
Others accused the agency of rebranding itself in order to extract more funding from Congress. “How many terror plots are there in this country? Not that many, but that’s where the big bucks are,” said Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks webcast. The article was also picked up by the Drudge Report and the massive link-sharing site Reddit.
Bresson said critics were wrongly confusing a small change on a fact sheet with a substantive change in priorities.
“You’re talking about a fact sheet, not a change in policy,” he said. “The FBI’s mission today, and throughout the course of our history, has been law enforcement and national security.”
This may not be the final word on the issue. The fact sheets accompany every response the agency gives to Freedom of Information Act requests. The latest change was discovered by FOIA expert Shawn Musgrave who has already filed a public records request for the internal memos related to the fact sheet revisions. We’ll keep you posted.
Update: FBI Director James Comey addressed the issue of the edited fact sheet during a talk he gave at an FBI field office in Birmingham, Alabama. “Someone eight levels down from me changed a form and as soon as I found out about it, I changed it back,” he said. “Now it says what we are: A national security and law-enforcement agency.”