The N.Y. Times is reporting that agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are more likely to be hunting potential threats to national security than for ordinary criminals in recent years.

This finding comes from data collected detailing the bureau’s activities the last 2 years. The data was part of an internal FBI report that the NY Times successfully obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The report details the FBI’s shift from a law-enforcement agency focused on solving crimes to a domestic intelligence agency whose mission is to detect potential threats before they can reach fruition.

In order to accomplish this transition the FBI instituted a policy to investigate every single national security tip, no matter how dubious the tip may be. Further, if the FBI receives a national security related tip from another agency, like the CIA or OFAC, the FBI will immediately open a more intensive investigation instead of starting with an “assessment.” (A couple of posts about the FBI’s new operations guide regarding assessments and investigations were discussed previously here, and here)

The FBI’s shift away from investigating ordinary crime to prioritizing national security related issues has already had a significant impact. So the critical question that needs to be asked is: What exactly are national security related issues? The U.S. government has expressly stated at one time or another through its various agencies and institutions that crimes related to money laundering, bank secrecy, smuggling, currency transaction reporting, trade sanctions, tax evasion, and narcotics production and trafficking are all national security related issues. As this list demonstrates, the government has unequivocally focused its attention on terrorism finance as one of the major ways of securing national security.

Coupling the government’s focus on terrorism finance with the FBI’s new focus on national security issues probably means more criminal investigations of people in immigrant groups with links to the Middle East, South America, Africa, and East Asia for activities that, in fact, are not at all related to national security. Additionally, this change in federal law enforcement policy coupled with a newly invigorated focus on terrorism finance also means more criminal investigations and scrutiny of traditional white collar activities and financial transactions. Thus, as everyday activities are increasingly linked to national security the general public will be subjected to increased government scrutiny.

Although many traditional protections offered to people that are targets of criminal investigations have eroded since September 11, the FBI is still, at its heart, a law enforcement agency receptive to this country’s legal standards associated with criminal investigations and trials (i.e. reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and beyond a reasonable doubt). However, as the FBI increases its intelligence gathering operations, the need for an effective federal defense attorney becomes even more important. Because the FBI will be subjecting more everyday activities to investigations for “intelligence gathering,” a knowledgeable federal defense attorney will be needed to explain to agents cultural nuances, federal regulatory policies, and foreign policy concerns applicable to a particular client’s situation. This level of knowledge in an attorney is vital to ensuring that the FBI doesn’t misinterpret the findings of an investigation which can ultimately lead to an erroneous indictment or conviction.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or ferrari@ferrari-legal.com.

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