Maybe Jim Comey Killed Off the Nation’s Premier Law Enforcement Agency?

Update: The change went into effect on July 1, 2013, so before Comey’s coronation.

I’ve been tracking the FBI’s embrace of its national security/intelligence role (with a consequent inattention to bank crimes, in particular) for years — notably with this post on its self-congratulation a decade after 9/11. (See also this post, this post, and this one.)

So regular readers will be unsurprised by Foreign Policy’s report that the FBI’s boilerplate fact sheet now hails its primary function to be national security.

But quietly and without notice, the agency has finally decided to make it official in one of its organizational fact sheets. 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. The changes largely reflect the FBI reforms put in place after September 11, 2001, which some have criticized for de-prioritizing law enforcement activities. Regardless, with the 9/11 attacks more than a decade in the past, the timing of the edits is baffling some FBI-watchers.

But I am a bit interested in the question FP goes onto ask: when did this happen. It appears to have happened during the summer.

“What happened in the last year that changed?” asked Kel McClanahan, a Washington-based national security lawyer.

McClanahan noticed the change last month while reviewing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the agency. The FBI fact sheet accompanies every FOIA response and highlights a variety of facts about the agency. After noticing the change, McClanahan reviewed his records and saw that the revised fact sheets began going out this summer. “I think they’re trying to rebrand,” he said. “So many good things happen to your agency when you tie it to national security.”

What FP doesn’t answer is why this happened.

But one possibility is the arrival of Jim Comey.

Comey didn’t take over as FBI DIrector until September 4, 2013. But his confirmation hearing (more of a coronation, really) was on July 9; his confirmation vote was on July 29. So he had plenty of time to complete the FBI’s rebranding as a domestic spy agency rather than its premier domestic law enforcement agency before he officially took over.

I checked his confirmation hearing coronation, to see if he announced this rebranding. I’ve been unable to find a formal statement (!!). And while later in the hearing he talked about balancing the intelligence side with the law enforcement side (the FBI itself emphasized this part of the hearing), what apparently extemporaneous statement he did give focused on the FBI’s transition under Robert Mueller to an intelligence agency. (This is my transcription of the non-family part, which took up half of the statement; it starts around 42:30.)

If I’m confirmed for this position I will follow a great American, one who has been clear-eyed about the threat facing our country, especially the metastasizing terrorist threat, the cyber-threat, that poses a risk to our secrets, to our commerce, to our people, and most ominously, to the networks we depend upon as our lifeblood. I know he has changed the FBI, as the Chairman and the Ranking Member described, in fundamental and crucial ways. I know that this will be a hard job. I’m sure that things will go wrong and I will make mistakes. What I pledge to you though is to follow Bob Mueller’s example of staring hard at those mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and getting better as a result of those mistakes. His legacy of candor and straight-forwardness and integrity is one that I pledge to continue. I also know that the FBI is and must be an independent entity in the life of America. It cannot be associated with any party or any interest or any group. It has to be seen as the good guys and good gals in this country. The FBI is and must be about finding the facts and only the facts in a fair, thorough, and objective way, and to do that with a rock-solid commitment to our Constitution and to our laws. That culture of commitment to law and resistance to any jeopardy of independence is at the core of the FBI. I know it is deep inside FBI Agents. Those values are the things that I love about the FBI.

It wouldn’t be surprising that a guy with roots in NY who was prosecuting terrorism even before 9/11 would adopt this focus. Nor do I, thus far, have reason to believe he won’t be better at going after banksters than Mueller was (and Obama has finally shifted some focus to it).

But I do hope — given his appeal to independence — he realizes that making the FBI a domestic intelligence agency does make the FBI a partisan institution, because it de-emphasizes a threat every bit as serious as terrorists and cybercriminals: the banksters.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    DOJ isn’t interested in prosecuting banksters and other white-collar criminals, so the FBI has to have something else to do, to justify their budget.

  2. Anonsters says:

    I don’t think it’s right to pin it on Comey as something he himself has done or is responsible for (with, in a moment, a caveat to the last). Comey’s just the guy who happens to be there now that the long-in-the-works transformation is being completed enough to roll out to the public more aggressively. My father works for the FBI at an upper-middle-management sort of level (not SES, not far removed from it). He’s been bemoaning for years now the way FBI’s been changing, and he’s not the only one.

    But it’s exactly the kind of thing that once set in motion is incredibly difficult to stop, unless you’re single-mindedly hell-bent on that one agenda, and you have the political backing it’ll take to see through. Think what Rumsfeld did to the military pre-Iraq; it took a savvy, experienced bureaucratic martial artist of the highest order, with a single-minded determination to implement his vision of DoD, but he managed to do it; and thus was born the Iraq abortion. So to speak. Comey’s just another guy. Faced with a very large, very entrenched bureaucratic machine. Which itself is situated in an environment where national security = $$$($$$($$$)), and big budgets above all else make bureaucrats happy. Which environment itself has been subject to now-long-term (10+ years of) pressure from the highest political levels to ensure no 9/11-equivalent terrorist incidents occur in the U.S., since political credibility has now become equivalent to “I’d shoot UBL in the face right now if he were here, and then I’d shit on his corpse; elect me!”

    No, I fear we’ve already gone too far down the road of permanent changes to FBI’s identity. Sure, support the White-Hat Rumsfeld equivalent for FBI Director if there is one out there. But I don’t see any on the horizon, and I’m not holding out hope. It seems to me that what we have left to do now is to find ways of constraining what it already has become, hedging it, keeping bright-lights on it at all times (transparency, transparency, transparency), not wishing and hoping that the next political appointee will be the One to Fix It All.

  3. Anonsters says:

    By the way, I don’t fault bureaucrats for wanting bigger budgets. I look at my dad as an example. He has to try to juggle 100 different demands on his budget, which was designed by Washington policy people to cover just around 10 demands at a time, and who then, after giving him this budget, added 90 other demands on top. And he’s only dealing with a budget in the millions-of-dollars range, not the hundreds of millions implicated by the national security mantra.

  4. Snoopdido says:

    If it wasn’t Jim Comey, then I’d guess it might have been Lisa Monaco who ran the DOJ’s National Security division before getting the plum White House assignment of replacing John Brennan as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

  5. Snoopdido says:

    This is off topic, but I couldn’t help myself with BabyDick’s announcement today:

    To be seen shortly in coming Wyoming Want Ads?

    Big Garage Sale (OK, we don’t really have a garage. Just an old shed where the mules used to sleep, but whatever).

    Log Cabin with commodious outdoor plumbing (OK, it’s a two-seater outhouse, but who knew you were supposed to put it downwind?).

    Fishing license – like new – never used!

    Friendly thoroughbred riding bronco (OK, it’s a pony. OK it’s a Shetland pony. OK, it bites and still isn’t house-trained).

    A pair of almost new leather cowgirl boots (OK, they’re made from porcupines, but who knew they’d be prickly. OK, they’re both for the right foot, but nobody in our family would ever buy something for the left).

    Almost new stun gun (OK, it’s one Dad’s old pacemakers, but it still works like a charm).

    Will take best offers. Willing to trade for plane ticket back to Virginia.

  6. Peterr says:

    How about looking at this from the other end — not Comey’s arrival but Mueller’s departure?

    Could this have been Mueller’s last hurrah (so to speak) — trying to get this in place before he rides off into the sunset, and oh, by the way, sorta kinda locking his successor into this? Sure, Comey could change the branding if he wanted to, but it would look like a real slap in the face at Mueller if Comey did it right after he took over, and would antagonize the rightwingers on The Hill that the FBI wants to keep happy.

    It also is something that probably didn’t happen overnight. Thus, I could see some of the folks at the top of the FBI under Mueller, perhaps nervous about whomever Obama might nominate, wanting to try to gently box the new director into a certain national security mindset, whatever his/her personal ideas might otherwise be.

    Yet another possibility: it was part of a quiet deal with certain GOP senators: “We rewrite the FBI mission to emphasize national security, and you don’t oppose our choice for director. Well, you won’t offer much opposition, just enough to make it look good for your base.”

    As always, it would be irresponsible not to speculate, right?

  7. elbow says:

    You know what else happened this past summer? EDWARD SNOWDEN. Perhaps the new primacy of it’s mission has to do with covering it’s ass for how and how often it accessed Americans’ data.

  8. Timbo says:

    U@Peterr:

    Um, methinks that Comey isn’t going to let the guy leaving set the tone at all. No, this is Comey’s thing. There’s a reason he was trusted under the Bushies and it’s similar under Obama. He’s a believer in the security state with some minimal amount of principles…or more exactly, he’s likely a supporter of the two party system that currently we seem stuck with in Washington…and the detritus left by it in our judicial system.

  9. bloodypitchfork says:

    Let’s cut the crap. The FBI is now the enforcement arm of the US Cartel, who now murders with impunity and doesn’t even rationalize any more.

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2014/01/07/fbi-has-had-plenty-time-explain-ibragim-todashev-killing/zEYoY6uax5NOhoW7OygjdL/comments.html

    I don’t give a crap what they claim their so called “mission” is any more. As far back as I can remember, the FBI has been a documented criminal element within government, who steals, plants evidence, uses surveillance to terrorize and blackmail, runs drugs, guns, breaks into private homes and business, lies through their teeth and murders with impunity. Give me a fucking break. Killed off?? The mob would be envious. Comey is just a new godfather of the US Cartel.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    Security trumps law enforcement. Laws can be broken to promote “security” — i.e. government control of everything. Security is the last thing that Obama thinks about every night, he has said. Not enforcing the laws — but security. The US since 1947 has been a national security state. Security rules.

  11. TarheelDem says:

    The predecessors of the FBI were created to track anarchists and to inventory houses of prostitution in a campaign against white slavery. The FBI during and after World War I was very invested in suppressing domestic socialists, communists, and anarachists. And then J. Edgar Hoover became the director.

    Law enforcement (such as G-men movies) was always the public relations tool. Creating a national crime lab was just a way to enlarge the FBI budget.

    Always and ever, the mission of the FBI has been a particular type of internal security.

  12. Frank33 says:

    Three or more cheers for the Heroes of Media PA. They have revealed themselves after 42 years of eluding capture by the government’s political not-so-secret police. I hope our police state assassins do not target them. The One Percent never forgives and never forgets.

    They raid on the FBI’s offices in Media PA exposed COINTELPRO and the FBI war against Martin Luther King Jr, among other dirty secrets. These days I bet the FBI has better locks on their doors. But whistle blowers only need flash drives now.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Might this means that anyone accused of something so bland as violating federal laws on drugs, kidnapping, bank robbery, securities fraud or comprising a systemic threat to the global financial system can rest easy. They are not a priority. Unless every crime is an existential threat to the security of the United States and, therefore, a “national security crime” meriting the FBI’s interest. Or could this be the FBI playing jargon ball with Congress and competing federal agencies, claiming that whatever currently gets Congress’s least inquisitive attention is its primary mission. Kremlinology used to be more fun.

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