Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)Updated: May 28, 2021
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a U.S. federal agency charged with upholding domestic criminal law, and with defending the United States against terrorism and “foreign intelligence threats,” according to the FBI official site. Created in the early 1900s, this agency’s priorities include investigating and defending against cybersecurity threats, public corruption, and protecting civil rights.
Purpose of the FBI
The official site of the Justice Department lists the following priorities for the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
- Protect the United States from terrorist attack
- Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage
- Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes
- Combat transnational and national criminal organizations and enterprises
These large-scale missions aren’t the only priorities. The agency is tasked with fighting public corruption “at all levels,” protection of civil rights, as well as:
- Investigating major white-collar crime
- Combating significant violent crime
- Supporting federal, state, county, municipal, and international partners
Among the major functions of the agency, the FBI is tasked with investigating violations of U.S. law, locating and arresting fugitives “for violations of specified federal laws,” and to conduct professional investigations to “identify, disrupt, and dismantle existing and emerging criminal enterprises” whose activities “affect the United States.”
A Brief History of the FBI
Before the creation of the FBI and in the earliest days of the nation, America had no permanent federal investigators working for the government. Believe it or not, when the Department of Justice was authorized in 1870, it started out by hiring private investigators to do its work.
That practice led to tasking the investigators from other government agencies to do Department of Justice investigations. That “borrowing ” included the use of Secret Service agents.
This practice was ultimately unsustainable. In 1908, the United States Attorney General placed a group of new federal investigators under the jurisdiction of something called the Office of the Chief Examiner.
These people were mostly accountants hired to look into the financial affairs of federal courts. In 1909, the Office of the Chief Examiner became the Bureau of Investigation but not before the Department of Justice hired a group of former Secret Service employees to join an expanded Office of the Chief Examiner.
When these agents showed up for their first day on the job, the date was recorded and later celebrated as the advent of what would become the modern day Federal Bureau of Investigation. That date is July 26, 1908, but it would not be until 1935 when the agency formally became the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Early FBI Work
One area the FBI became known for in its infancy was its efforts to prosecute criminals whose crimes crossed state lines, and over time the number of agents used to work on cases like these (as well as many others) grew into the triple digits. But concerns over the agency’s power were also growing.
This concern would prove to be a very real issue with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, but prior to this, the FBI became embroiled in the investigation of those who resisted the draft, those who were considered “radicals”, and other areas.
It is around this time that J. Edgar Hoover became a member of the Department of Justice. By the time 1919 had arrived, Hoover was among those who perpetuated the so-called Red Scare. J. Edgar Hoover was a special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 at the same time he was peddling an index file which purported to list the names of every “radical” organization, publication, and individual “radical” leader.
This index had nearly half a million files, and Hoover’s Red Scare antics resulted in the arrests of ten thousand or more “communists”.
Abuses Of Power
Hoover’s behavior in this area led to controversy, but it did not prevent him from being appointed as the Acting Director of the FBI in 1924.
This begins a dark chapter in the history of the Bureau. It was also a time of expansion–under Hoover the Bureau established a centralized fingerprint database long before such things were referred to as “databases.” Under Hoover there was an FBI training school established for agents, and created an FBI crime lab.
But Hoover couldn’t leave well enough alone when it came to political scaremongering. Following the end of World War Two, Hoover would join forces with the Red Scare’s most notorious figure, Senator Joe McCarthy.
These two would work together with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and later Hoover would instigate something called COINTELPRO, described as a secret program originally aimed at that hoary old monster under the bed of American mid-20th century right-wing politics, the Communist party.
But it would not stop there. The FBI would monitor a variety of U.S. civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., activists such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and many others. Growing concern over such abuses of power led to the passage of laws requiring future FBI directors to have term limits.
Hoover died just before Watergate became a national issue, and it was later revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had illegally shielded President Richard Nixon from investigation.
Moving On After Watergate
The FBI would have ups and downs over the next few decades including dealing with domestic radical groups, home-grown terrorists, and espionage cases. In the 1980s more emphasis would be placed on helping local law enforcement agencies with violent crime, tracking fugitives across state lines, and eventually establishing DNA testing as a legitimate form of evidence.
In 1992, the FBI was tasked with helping local agencies restore order in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots, and in 1993 the World Trade Center bombing in New York City led the agency to ramp up its involvement in counter-terrorism. In 1995 FBI efforts would include investigating the Oklahoma City bombing as well as participating in the 1996 arrest of the Unabomber.
Some sources report internal controversy over FBI involvement in shooting incidents at Ruby Ridge, and the fiery destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
At least one source reports that in both cases, investigations into the FBI performance in both incidents were “obstructed by agents within the Bureau” and this is a subject of some debate depending on who you ask.
The FBI would expand and restructure following the terror attacks on 9/11. The passage of the Patriot Act resulted in the agency getting more power to wiretap and monitor traffic and activity on the internet.
Under the original provisions of the Patriot Act, the FBI was allowed to conduct inquiries into the library records of private citizens suspected of terrorism. Such measures were controversial and many like the “library rule” would be overturned later.
In the 21st century, the FBI works with other federal agencies including the National Transportation Safety Board, the Coast Guard, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to conduct investigations, provide security, and investigate terrorism.
The FBI was named as an important member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and is the lead U.S. organization for investigating terrorism after the Department of Homeland Security.
Today, the FBI has its headquarters at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. and the agency has more than 50 field offices across the United States. There are also more than 400 “resident agencies.” Specialized training and other FBI functions are located at Quantico, Virginia.
That training takes place at the FBI Academy, which is also where the agency’s communications lab and computer lab are located. FBI units working at Quantico include the Field and Police Training Unit, Firearms Training Unit, Forensic Science Research and Training Center, and the Technology Services Unit (TSU), to name a few.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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