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Who Checks the FBI?

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, President Donald J. Trump dismissed FBI director James Comey, bringing the issue of checks and balances once again into the spotlight. The FBI operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice as the primary federal law enforcement agency. The work of the Bureau has often brought it into conflict with all of the branches of the United States government, as well as its people as all work in concert to balance the nation’s liberties with its security. This lesson explores the checks and balances on the FBI in the federal government, and the tension between liberty and security. Students will examine select events in FBI history and their constitutionality, examining whether the FBI’s powers are balanced in the best interest of the American people.  


  • Students will understand the history of tension between the FBI and the branches of government, especially landmark supreme court cases that explore liberty and security.
  • Students will evaluate the threats to citizens’ civil liberties, especially free speech, free press, and freedom of association, during national security crises.



Introductory Essay: Liberty and Security in Modern Times Handout A: First Amendment, U.S. Constitution, 1791 Handout C: Interpreting the Fourth Amendment Handout D: The Alien Registration Act of 1940, also called the Smith Act Korematsu v. US- Case Background  

Warm-up Activity: 10-15 min

Have students the following question individually:

  • What is the relationship between liberty and security?
  • The mission of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the United States Constitution. What could be an example of where the two parts of the mission conflict with one another?

Ask students to gather into small groups and review the timeline of FBI history. Using four different colors, have students identify where the FBI interacts with each branch of government and with citizens. Have students identify what the tensions might be in those interactions, given the FBI’s two‑part mission. Ask a representative from each group to share their findings.   Extension: Have students compare their answers to the Congressional Research Service Report RL32336 – FBI Intelligence Reform Since September 11, 2001: Issues and Options for Congress, Appendix 3: The FBI’s Intelligence Programs – A Brief History  

Activity 1: 20-30 min

Have students complete Handout A and Handout C individually to re-introduce the essential features of the First and Fourth Amendments. Split the class into 4 groups, ask them to identify “What is the check on the power of the FBI in your document?”   Provide the groups with the following:

  1. Voices of History Website
    1. Handout D: The Alien Registration Act of 1940, also called the Smith Act
  2. Voices of History Website
    1. Korematsu v. US- Case Background
  3. One Newspaper Article
    1. The Guardian Newspaper, October 24, 2012: No, Mr President – how the FBI bosses the White House
  4. Two Newspaper Articles
    1. New York Times Newspaper, March 28, 2016: U.S. Says It Has Unlocked iPhone Without Apple
    2. Reuters, April 29, 2016: U.S. high court approves rule change to expand FBI hacking power

Ask a representative from each group to share their findings.  

Conclusions: 5-10 min

Students will answer the following questions to draw conclusions from the activity:

  • What are the checks on the power of the FBI?
  • Are they sufficient to guarantee liberty and security?

Extension/Additional Resources: HEROES AND VILLAINS: Joseph McCarthy and Demagoguery EXPLORING CIVIL AND ECONOMIC FREEDOM: Liberty and the Supreme Court THE PRESIDENCY: CONSTITUTIONAL CONTROVERSIES: Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) FBI: Frequently Asked Questions (FBI website)   For More Lessons on Liberty and Security, check our curriculum on Voices of