Police History: The creation and evolution of the FBI
Over time, the priorities of the agency have changed depending on the threats facing the nation and the concerns of the American people from land fraud in the early days to counterterrorism today
In 1908, Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte — Napoleon’s grand-nephew — had a great need for assistance in gathering evidence for U.S. Attorneys. Federal criminal investigations, at the time, were expanding. Consequently, Bonaparte created a team of detectives in the Department of Justice (DOJ) that included 12 examiners, 13 miscellaneous investigators and nine United States Secret Service operatives that DOJ had used in the past and who were then permanent hires.
The detectives were paid on a per diem plus expenses basis and led by Chief Examiner Stanley Finch. On July 26, 1908, Attorney General Bonaparte announced the new group to the U.S. Attorneys and told them to contact Finch if they required investigative assistance.
Thus, the existence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began, and it is now one of the most respected law enforcement agencies in the world.
The origin of the FBI motto is traced to a brief comment by Inspector W. H. Drane Lester — the editor of an employee magazine titled The Investigator — who said, “FBI…for those initials also represent the three things for which the Bureau and its representatives always stand, fidelity, bravery, integrity.”
The original Bureau of Investigation — as it was named in 1909 — was responsible for investigating approximately two dozen federal offenses that included peonage anarchist activity, land fraud, neutrality violations, and a range of other matters. Interstate human trafficking was added within a year.
In the early 1930s, the FBI was largely unknown. It had been mired in the problems of the early 1920s following the backlash against the Palmer Red Raids and the corruption scandals of the Harding administration, but in the 1930s the agency began to make name for itself. As the nation’s security and criminal laws grew over the years, the bureau embraced new authority. With the hunt for John Dillinger and his death in a shootout with bureau agents in July 1934, the FBI became internationally known as a premier law enforcement agency.
Colonel Walter Walsh worked the most storied cases in the 1930s, and he dealt with lawbreakers of the Great Depression including Arthur (Doc) and Kate (Ma) Barker. He was well known for his ability to handle a weapon and was an expert marksman. His work helped shape how the public came to view the FBI in the first hundred years.
The FBI was brought into national prominence by Hoover’s reforms, successfully handling the problem of the 1930s gangsters, and a commitment to law enforcement service and leadership through its criminal identification, forensic science applications and research, and professional law enforcement training.
Over time, the priorities of the agency have changed depending on the threats facing the nation and the concerns of the American people. At times, criminal responsibilities have been at the forefront such as the gangster years of the 1930’s or the civil rights investigation of the 1960s.
At other times, national security concerns have been foremost such as the Cold War period or post-9/11.
Currently, the FBI has jurisdiction over violations of more than 200 categories of federal laws. The top priorities include preventing terrorist attacks, stopping intelligence threats, dealing with cybercrimes and enforcing a wide array of U.S. criminal laws.
The most important times of growth and change in the FBI are its creation, World War I, Hoover’s reforms following his appointment as Director, World War II, Hoover’s death, the Watergate Era, and the response to and reform after the 9/11 attacks.
For most of Hoover’s years, the bureau maintained a strong public image and Congress tended to be quite deferential to it. In the wake of Watergate and strong congressional oversight that included the airing of a number of unsavory details about problems under Hoover’s tenure (especially his abuse of power regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.), the agency’s reputation was greatly diminished. Congressional oversight became adversarial to a greater degree.
Since then, however, the agency’s reputation has been rebuilt as a result of strong work and service, but Congress and the courts remain vigilant to ensure previous recognized abuses are not repeated or, if they are, that they are terminated quickly.
The Headquarters Division and Field Offices has been stable for much of the agency’s history. Investigative work is done in the field. Currently, there are 56 field offices, and their number has changed over time depending on the needs and resources of the bureau.
In the 1920s, the headquarters structure began to solidify into numerous divisions in which some clearly supported investigative efforts while others provided logistical, financial, and other necessary support for the bureau to function.
There are now 400 small “resident agencies” or satellite offices that opened under the field offices. In the 1940s, foreign liaison offices — known as Legal Attaché Offices — were opened in U.S. embassies in major international cities. Currently, there are more than six dozen of them across the world.
Headquarters includes not only offices in Washington DC at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, but the academy, lab, and technical facilities at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, as well as the new Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) in West Virginia. They all provide support to FBI field investigations and law enforcement services to national and international partners.
The FBI has always prided itself on successfully protecting the nation from a wide array of criminal and security threats through successful investigation. As the nature of these threats has changed, the FBI has also changed by balancing the nation’s desire for security from threats of a national level with the protection and honoring of those rights and liberties that are expected under the Constitution.
The FBI is a law enforcement agency that has made great strides throughout history, and it remains robust in existence and noble in its cause.