Renewed attention to FBI’s involvement in politics, kindled with DOJ’s decision to drop its prosecution of Michael Flynn, makes one ask this question: should the FBI ever investigate political organizations or politicians, or undertake any case that involves the bureau in domestic politics? No, it should not. Then I thought, why not visit FBI’s website, to see what they say about their mission? I should not have been surprised about their content and presentation.
Here is FBI’s mission statement:
“To protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.”
This statement is nonsense. The sentence is not nonsense, but it is not a mission statement. Whoever wrote it does not know what a mission statement is.
A mission statement distinguishes your organization’s purpose from other organizations. Yet my purpose as a blogger is to protect people and uphold the Constitution. My wife works as a political organizer. She has the same purpose. A friend of mine has a son who works for our city’s police force. That’s his mission, too. President Trump takes an oath on Inauguration Day, which says he will do the same thing. Virtually every federal agency could write that sentence into its mission statement, and it would be accurate. So you have to say, so what?
As with most websites, FBI’s website also has an About section. Now we go to the meat of what the bureau actually does, and wants to do:
“Today’s FBI is an intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization with both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities that is staffed by a dedicated cadre of more than 30,000 agents, analysts, and other professionals who work around the clock and across the globe to protect the U.S. from terrorism, espionage, cyber attacks, and major criminal threats, and to provide its many partners with services, support, training, and leadership.”
At least now we know why FBI means danger for all of us. Formed in 1908 to serve as the DOJ’s investigative arm, to serve under the attorney general’s direction, it gave itself all these other missions, itself an unconstitutional self-assignment. In a constitutional republic, you cannot just take on new powers, independent of the legislature, the executive branch, or the courts. We have already seen what happens when the president appropriates war powers from Congress. It results in an unholy, political catastrophe.
To focus more narrowly on executive branch politics: when new attorneys general take office to direct the Department of Justice, with priorities set by the president, do you suppose those DOJ chiefs will have an easy time if they try to take away all these tasks FBI has appointed itself to do? Of course not. FBI chiefs serve a term of ten years, and the organization guards its independence. Attorneys general have other things to do, besides cut the FBI down to its original and proper mission. At 30,000 strong, DOJ does not have resources to push FBI around, let alone cut it down to approximately 3,000, what it would need to accomplish its core mission effectively.
Let’s analyze briefly what FBI’s power and independence mean for politics. If a law enforcement agency operates with minimal oversight from the attorney general, and with minimal constraints of any kind, how safe do you feel? If the bureau decides what to make public and what to keep secret, do you want an agency like that involved in domestic politics? Not in a democracy, you don’t. Given its self-described mission, and its habits of secrecy, the FBI operates like a secret police force, and appears to take pride in that role.
To limit the harm it does, courts and the rest of DOJ can set a clear boundary: remove domestic politics from FBI’s charter. We have other ways to regulate our political processes. At its discretion, DOJ may decide to refer domestic political cases to bodies that operate transparently. It should never refer domestic political cases to a body that operates as a secret police force. Secret police forces do not have a place in a republic, certainly not in any processes that confer legitimate power on officials and leaders.
The Flynn case shows why this principle of exclusion – FBI excluded from politics, politics operates independently of FBI – must be part of DOJ’s standard procedures. In Flynn’s case, as well as Clinton’s email case, Carter Page’s case, and numerous other instances from 2015 to the present – FBI appears to think it can muck around in domestic politics any way it likes. The results have been disastrous, not only for our electoral processes and faith we want to have in them, but also for FBI’s own reputation. FBI has engaged in a lot of dubious activities during its long history. Many contradict its mission. Few episodes have destroyed faith in the FBI, and in our electoral processes, at the same time.
Do you have confidence this recommendation might take off? Would it not be significant if FBI Director Wray said something along these lines:
“We have looked in detail at our investigation of Michael Flynn – as well as what happened to DOJ’s prosecution of Flynn after Robert Mueller took over – and concluded that we have to prevent these kinds of harmful consequences in the future. We apologize to Mr. Flynn and his family for the difficulties our investigation caused for them. To prevent similar failures, and to prevent similar circumstances from affecting our core mission, we ask the attorney general to define clearly, in writing, the FBI’s responsibilities as they relate to domestic political processes. The statement should be simple: we have none.”
Do you think you will ever see that statement, or one like it, from the FBI director? I doubt it. Every indication points the other way. The FBI expects to police the 2020 election, secretly. First priority: do not get caught. They understand now that partial transparency does not work.