Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that the FBI had made a controversial decision to drop the term “law enforcement” from its official fact sheet in favor of “national security.” The terms were in reference to the primary functions of the FBI. After facing swift backlash, the FBI has once again revised the fact sheet to include both terms.
It is no secret that the FBI has dipped into the world of counterterrorism since 9/11, but many criticized the Bureau for neglecting its duties as the nation’s chief law enforcement agency. Those same people saw the original change as confirmation of these fears. Many also questioned why the FBI waited over ten years to change its mission statement if its responsibilities had actually changed.
Public image and funding may have been the reasoning behind the original change. As Kel McClanahan, a Washington-based national security lawyer, told Foreign Policy, “so many good things happen to your agency when you tie it to national security.”
It took only two days for the FBI to respond to the criticism by making a second change to the fact sheet, which now reads “the primary functions of the FBI are national security and law enforcement.”
In the end, the controversy and criticism is probably unwarranted. A fact sheet is just that; a fact sheet. The FBI does not gain any authority without legislative action regardless of what its mission statement is. The argument could easily be made that the public needs a clear explanation as to what the FBI’s overall goal is, but Foreign Policy’s initial report also points out that it took months for anyone to even notice the change. It does not appear that the FBI’s policies changed during that time.
The bottom line is that the public has a pretty good idea of what the FBI’s mission is with or without a 12-word explanation (even if it is not sure what method are being used to carry out that mission). It should also go without saying that national security and law enforcement significantly overlap each other. While the change may help the FBI in the PR department, nobody should expect any substantive changes to the way it operates.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research