Christopher Wray
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Center for Strategic and International Studies (Virtual)
Washington, D.C.
March 12, 2021

Civic Education as a National Security Imperative

Remarks prepared for delivery.

Thanks, John. I appreciate the chance to talk about the importance of civic education to our national security and to the FBI’s work. Let me offer a few initial thoughts to set the table, and then I look forward to having more of a conversation with Suzanne.

Maybe the best place for me to start is to define what at least I think of as “civic education.” I’m reminded of something President Reagan said in his farewell address, when he spoke about the need for what he called an “informed patriotism,” one that’s “grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.” That strikes me as a pretty good shorthand for what civic education should do: create informed patriots who know our history and understand how our democratic institutions work.

So how does civic education intersect with our national security—and specifically, with the FBI’s work?

In a whole bunch of ways, I think. But for the purposes of our conversation, I’d highlight two, in particular. First, it intersects with some of the threats the FBI and our nation confront today; and second, it can shape how we do our work.

Let me take each of those in turn.

One example of how civic education affects a current national security threat is election security, and more broadly, the problem of malign foreign influence, which has been a top concern for the FBI recently. We’re the lead federal agency for identifying and combating malign foreign influence operations that target U.S. democratic institutions and values—things like the rule of law; free and fair elections; an independent judicial system; and freedom of speech and of the press.

Our adversaries are doing all they can to undermine those institutions and to confuse and divide Americans by spreading disinformation, especially through social media. So the FBI’s been working hard to combat those efforts, along with our partners in government and the private sector. And we’ve had a good deal of success.

But at the end of the day, no amount of FBI investigating can, by itself, sufficiently insulate our country from this threat. Ultimately, our best defense is a well-informed public—citizens who are thoughtful, discerning consumers of all the information that’s out there, and who have a solid understanding of how our democratic institutions work. An American public of informed patriots will be a lot more resilient against these malign influence efforts—and that, in turn, will make it a lot harder for our adversaries to succeed.

The second place where civic education intersects with the FBI’s mission concerns how we do our work of protecting the American people.

One thing I’ve stressed to our folks since I took this job is the importance of process—of making sure we always do the right thing in the right way. We can’t carry out the FBI’s mission without the trust and support of the American people—so we have to make sure we’re always doing our work in a way that’s professional, objective, and that earns—that justifies—that trust and support.

Another way to put it is when people ask the FBI to do something, there’s a unique expectation that it’ll get done “right,” in every sense of that word. We’re the people others turn to when it’s particularly important that something get done right. And the more important it is, the more people turn to us with that expectation. That confidence is at the heart of a lot things we do, like our public corruption investigations, or our civil rights investigations. And that’s a trust the FBI cannot afford to lose.

Civic education comes into play here too, because a well-informed public will have a better understanding of what the FBI really does, and why and how we actually do it. That kind of understanding is important for any government agency—but it’s especially important for us, because we’ve been given such broad powers. Citizens need to know: Is the FBI upholding the Constitution and the rule of law? Are we doing the right thing in the right way?

Take something like our surveillance work, which is crucial for us in catching corrupt public officials, child predators, foreign spies, and terrorists. The FBI can’t surveil someone just because we want to. We have to go to an independent judge to show evidence of probable cause and get a warrant. Or take our FISA authorities. If we suspect someone is a foreign spy or terrorist and we want to listen to their phone calls or read their emails, we’ve got to present evidence and get a warrant from the FISA Court to do that.

When citizens have a good understanding of the Fourth Amendment and how warrants work, and the safeguards we’ve got in place, they’ll have that much more confidence the FBI is using that tool appropriately. And obviously, if we’re not doing things the right way, an informed public will be better prepared to hold us accountable for that.

The last point I’ll make is that to me, civic education is important for helping our FBI workforce understand both the importance of our mission and of doing things in the right way.

When we’re hiring, we’re looking for those “informed patriots,” of course. And once they’re actually on board, their training involves some things you might think of as ongoing “civic education.”

For example, all our new agents and intelligence analysts at Quantico visit the 9/11 Museum in New York. We want them to understand the magnitude of what happened to our country that day, how it changed the Bureau, and how crucial our counterterrorism work remains almost two decades later. They also visit the Holocaust Museum, to experience in a gut-level way the horror of what can happen when people in government abuse their power. And they visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, as a reminder of how the FBI itself hasn’t always used our authority in the right way.

All of these things drive home, each in its own way, the stakes of our work—the sheer impact we can have, good or bad, on all the citizens counting on us. If our employees can recognize the abuse of power, and understand how our own organization has sometimes fallen short, they’ll be less likely to make those same mistakes.

So those are a few reasons, from our perspective at the FBI, why civic education is critical to our national security—and I’m happy to drill into some of these topics with Suzanne more deeply in a second.

Thanks again for focusing on this issue and for including me.