Evolution, Not Revolution, at the FBI

February 4, 2014 Topic: IntelligenceTerrorismSecurity Region: United States

Evolution, Not Revolution, at the FBI

National security has long been a fundamental feature of the Bureau's mission.


Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported the FBI quietly dropped law enforcement as its primary mission and ominously replaced it with “national security.” This monumental change of mission for such a well-known and powerful agency was not announced by the Director of the FBI, the Attorney General nor the President. It was not even posed on the FBI’s public webpage. According to the article, this significant event was announced this summer in the form of coversheets on documents requested by individuals under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the mission of the FBI has evolved since its inception in 1908, the Bureau has always been an agency with both law enforcement and intelligence authorities. Since 2011, the official mission statement of the FBI has read: “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.”


With some minor wording changes, this was the same mission statement in effect on September 11, 2001. Those attacks clearly demonstrated that international terrorists had evolved into the most significant threat in the FBI’s mandate. Later that same year, the Bureau listed terrorism and foreign-intelligence threats first, followed by the enforcement of criminal laws. This reordering of priorities accurately reflected the massive shift in resources and organization that was then occurring within the FBI.

Even in its earliest days, the FBI arrested racketeers and bank robbers while also investigating act of espionage and sabotage. The FBI first assumed its role in national security in 1916 after German saboteurs bombed an ammunition depot on Black Tom’s Island in New York Harbor. The explosion measured at least 5.0 of the Richter scale, killed as many as seven people, wounded hundreds, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Congress passed statutes giving the Bureau of Investigation (as the FBI was then known) jurisdiction to investigate acts of sabotage and espionage. In World War II, the FBI began stationing agents in embassies overseas to counter German intelligence networks. Today, there are FBI employees operating out of over 66 embassies overseas. During World War II, the FBI famously captured Nazi saboteurs infiltrating the United States. The FBI’s early mission to prevent sabotage evolved over the decades into the counterterrorism mission of today. In 1980, the FBI and NYPD had established the first Joint Terrorism Task Force. Today, there are over one hundred.

The FBI’s mandate includes the enforcement of over two hundred categories of violations of federal law. The Bureau must counter a range of bad actors, including foreign intelligence officers, terrorists and criminals, in both the physical world and the cyber environment. At any given time, about half the FBI field agents are working counterintelligence, counterterrorism or cyberintrusion matters. The Bureau uses intelligence analysis to identify the most significant current and emerging threats to the local communities and aligns the Bureau’s resources accordingly. Using these methods, the FBI prioritizes investigative resources at the most serious violent, economic and civil-rights violators, as well as interstate and transnational criminal organizations. While the Bureau cannot investigate every reported violation of federal law, as a national-security agency it investigates every credible terrorism tip it receives.

The FBI’s thirty-six thousand agents, analysts and professional staff provide a deep reserve of manpower and talent able to respond to terrorist plots. Since 2001, hundreds of FBI employees have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, serving alongside our military and intelligence community partners. In fact, several employees have earned medals of valor for FBI service in these war zones. It is true that the Bureau’s role in the nation’s counterterrorism effort has increased. For example, it leads the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an intelligence community task force that interrogates all significant terrorism suspects detained by the United States domestically and abroad. As combat operations wind down in Afghanistan, the FBI law enforcement authorities will become an increasingly important component of the nation’s counterterrorism strategy. Throughout its history, the FBI has been a national-security agency that uses both its law enforcement and intelligence authorities as means to counter the most significant threats to this nation. As these threats have evolved, so have the Bureau’s mission priorities. These threats will continue to evolve, particularly in the cyber realm, and the FBI will continue to evolve with it.

Charles E. Berger is an Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is currently on sabbatical at the Council on Foreign Relations as the National Intelligence Fellow. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the FBI.

Image: Flickr/Dave Newman. CC BY 2.0.