Violent threats against the FBI make us less safe

The entrance to the FBI headquarters in Cincinnati is shown Thursday, August 11, 2022. An armed man decked out in body armor tried to breach a security screening area at an FBI field office in Ohio on Thursday, then fled and exchanged gunfire in a standoff with law enforcement, authorities said. (Liz Dufour/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

News of the recent FBI search of former President Trump’s residence in Florida and alleged mishandling of sensitive classified materials has sent shockwaves through the political landscape, and has serious national security implications. The Justice Department’s decision to publicly release details of the warrant and supporting facts within it are a necessary measure to shed light into the basis of the inquiry and quell perceptions of political motivation or conspiracy theories that this is yet another “deep state” effort to undermine Trump and his 2024 ambitions.   

A disturbing aspect of the controversy over the raid is the significant uptick in violent rhetoric directed against the FBI on social media and calls from elected officials to disband the FBI or take similar actions. The attempted attack against the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office last week is a shocking example of how quickly an individual can act when existing grievances are combined with anger over the news of an FBI search. Underscoring the severity of this situation, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint bulletin warning that the violent rhetoric and attempted attack could augur additional plots and attacks.

Much more needs to be done to combat the spread of this type of online vitriol to ensure FBI employees (special agents, analysts and other staff) are protected and allowed to conduct the agency’s important work. The organization has one singular focus — keeping the American public safe from domestic terrorists, foreign jihadists, hostile intelligence services, child predators, cyber hackers and organized criminals. They must do so while operating within rigid guidelines from the Department of Justice to ensure it respects the Constitution and does not violate Americans’ civil liberties.

I had a unique perspective in the FBI beginning in 2007, when I was hired as the organization’s first ever senior intelligence analyst on counterterrorism. It was an incredible privilege to serve in this capacity for several years, which included supporting Director Robert Mueller in the late 2000s as he tried to drive the FBI’s transition from a pure law enforcement agency to a more intelligence-driven, national security one. 

While this transition was not easy then, and some would argue is still evolving, the FBI has tried to keep Americans safe at home by prioritizing preventing threats over investigating them after the fact. 

This does not mean the FBI has a perfect track record of thwarting every terrorist attack, intelligence service plot or cyber operation. It is constantly trying to develop new capabilities, understand the tradecraft of different adversaries and stay one step ahead of future threats. It also means the FBI stays out of partisan politics and keeps its investigative and analytic efforts focused objectively on the most pressing threats — managing its resources effectively and assuming acceptable levels of risks when necessary.

Given the organization’s mandate and diverse mission to keep the country safe, the last thing FBI personnel should have to worry about is their personal safety at work, home or in public. Physical assaults against FBI agents, as federal law enforcement officers, are a federal crime that carry stiff penalties, while use of the postal system to communicate threats against federal employees is also a crime. 

As a result, cooler heads need to prevail within Washington, D.C., and beyond from elected politicians and other prominent figures who demonize the FBI and are calling for steps that some could interpret as a pretext for violent action.  Swift action must also be taken in the online world to block or prevent the ugly anti-FBI rhetoric from continuing to manifest. Failure to do so would be irresponsible and could harm national security down the road.

Javed Ali was the FBI’s first-ever senior intelligence officer for counterterrorism in 2007 and later held senior counterterrorism positions at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council from 2017-2018. He is an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

Tags deep state FBI FBI raid Federal Bureau of Investigation Mar-a-lago fbi raid Robert Mueller

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