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FBI History
History of the FBI

Origins (1908 - 1910)
| Early Days (1910 - 1921) | The "Lawless" Years (1921 - 1933)
The New Deal (1933 - late 1930s) | World War II Period (late 1930s - 1945)
Postwar America (1945 - 1960s) | The Vietnam War Era (1960s - mid1970s)
Aftermath of Watergate (1970s) | The Rise of International Crime (1980s)
The End of the Cold War (1989 - 1993) | Rise of a Wired World (1993-2001)
Change of Mandate (2001-Present)


The FBI originated from a force of Special Agents created in 1908 by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The two men first met when they both spoke at a meeting of the Baltimore Civil Service Reform Association. Roosevelt, then Civil Service Commissioner, boasted of his reforms in federal law enforcement. It was 1892, a time when law enforcement was often political rather than professional. Roosevelt spoke with pride of his insistence that Border Patrol applicants pass marksmanship tests, with the most accurate getting the jobs. Following Roosevelt on the program, Bonaparte countered, tongue in cheek, that target shooting was not the way to get the best men. "Roosevelt should have had the men shoot at each other, and given the jobs to the survivors."

Roosevelt and Bonaparte both were "Progressives." They shared the conviction that efficiency and expertise, not political connections, should determine who could best serve in government. Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1901; four years later, he appointed Bonaparte to be Attorney General. In 1908, Bonaparte applied that Progressive philosophy to the Department of Justice by creating a corps of Special Agents. It had neither a name nor an officially designated leader other than the Attorney General. Yet, these former detectives and Secret Service men were the forerunners of the FBI.

Today, most Americans take for granted that our country needs a federal investigative service, but in 1908, the establishment of this kind of agency at a national level was highly controversial. The U.S. Constitution is based on "federalism:" a national government with jurisdiction over matters that crossed boundaries, like interstate commerce and foreign affairs, with all other powers reserved to the states. Through the 1800s, Americans usually looked to cities, counties, and states to fulfill most government responsibilities. However, by the 20th century, easier transportation and communications had created a climate of opinion favorable to the federal government establishing a strong investigative tradition.

The impulse among the American people toward a responsive federal government, coupled with an idealistic, reformist spirit, characterized what is known as the Progressive Era, from approximately 1900 to 1918. The Progressive generation believed that government intervention was necessary to produce justice in an industrial society. Moreover, it looked to "experts" in all phases of industry and government to produce that just society.

President Roosevelt personified Progressivism at the national level. A federal investigative force consisting of well-disciplined experts and designed to fight corruption and crime fit Roosevelt's Progressive scheme of government. Attorney General Bonaparte shared his President's Progressive philosophy. However, the Department of Justice under Bonaparte had no investigators of its own except for a few Special Agents who carried out specific assignments for the Attorney General, and a force of Examiners (trained as accountants) who reviewed the financial transactions of the federal courts. Since its beginning in 1870, the Department of Justice used funds appropriated to investigate federal crimes to hire private detectives first, and later investigators from other federal agencies. (Federal crimes are those that were considered interstate or occurred on federal government reservations.)

By 1907, the Department of Justice most frequently called upon Secret Service "operatives" to conduct investigations. These men were well-trained, dedicated -- and expensive. Moreover, they reported not to the Attorney General, but to the Chief of the Secret Service. This situation frustrated Bonaparte, who wanted complete control of investigations under his jurisdiction. Congress provided the impetus for Bonaparte to acquire his own force. On May 27, 1908, it enacted a law preventing the Department of Justice from engaging Secret Service operatives.

The following month, Attorney General Bonaparte appointed a force of Special Agents within the Department of Justice. Accordingly, ten former Secret Service employees and a number of Department of Justice peonage (i.e., compulsory servitude) investigators became Special Agents of the Department of Justice. On July 26, 1908, Bonaparte ordered them to report to Chief Examiner Stanley W. Finch. This action is celebrated as the beginning of the FBI.

Both Attorney General Bonaparte and President Theodore Roosevelt, who completed their terms in March 1909, recommended that the force of 34 Agents become a permanent part of the Department of Justice. Attorney General George Wickersham, Bonaparte's successor, named the force the Bureau of Investigation on March 16, 1909. At that time, the title of Chief Examiner was changed to Chief of the Bureau of Investigation.

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When the Bureau was established, there were few federal crimes. The Bureau of Investigation primarily investigated violations of laws involving national banking, bankruptcy, naturalization, antitrust, peonage, and land fraud. Because the early Bureau provided no formal training, previous law enforcement experience or a background in the law was considered desirable.

The first major expansion in Bureau jurisdiction came in June 1910 when the Mann ("White Slave") Act was passed, making it a crime to transport women over state lines for immoral purposes. It also provided a tool by which the federal government could investigate criminals who evaded state laws but had no other federal violations. Finch became Commissioner of White Slavery Act violations in 1912, and former Special Examiner A. Bruce Bielaski became the new Bureau of Investigation Chief.

Over the next few years, the number of Special Agents grew to more than 300, and these individuals were complemented by another 300 Support Employees. Field offices existed from the Bureau's inception. Each field operation was controlled by a Special Agent in Charge who was responsible to Washington. Most field offices were located in major cities. However, several were located near the Mexican border where they concentrated on smuggling, neutrality violations, and intelligence collection, often in connection with the Mexican revolution.

With the April 1917 entry of the United States into World War I during Woodrow Wilson's administration, the Bureau's work was increased again. As a result of the war, the Bureau acquired responsibility for the Espionage, Selective Service, and Sabotage Acts, and assisted the Department of Labor by investigating enemy aliens. During these years Special Agents with general investigative experience and facility in certain languages augmented the Bureau.

William J. Flynn, former head of the Secret Service, became Director of the Bureau of Investigation in July 1919 and was the first to use that title. In October 1919, passage of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act gave the Bureau of Investigation another tool by which to prosecute criminals who previously evaded the law by crossing state lines. With the return of the country to "normalcy" under President Warren G. Harding in 1921, the Bureau of Investigation returned to its pre-war role of fighting the few federal crimes.

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The years from 1921 to 1933 were sometimes called the "lawless years" because of gangsterism and the public disregard for Prohibition, which made it illegal to sell or import intoxicating beverages. Prohibition created a new federal medium for fighting crime, but the Department of the Treasury, not the Department of Justice, had jurisdiction for these violations.

Attacking crimes that were federal in scope but local in jurisdiction called for creative solutions. The Bureau of Investigation had limited success using its narrow jurisdiction to investigate some of the criminals of "the gangster era." For example, it investigated Al Capone as a "fugitive federal witness." Federal investigation of a resurgent white supremacy movement also required creativity. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), dormant since the late 1800s, was revived in part to counteract the economic gains made by African Americans during World War I. The Bureau of Investigation used the Mann Act to bring Louisiana's philandering KKK "Imperial Kleagle" to justice.

Through these investigations and through more traditional investigations of neutrality violations and antitrust violations, the Bureau of Investigation gained stature. Although the Harding Administration suffered from unqualified and sometimes corrupt officials, the Progressive Era reform tradition continued among the professional Department of Justice Special Agents. The new Bureau of Investigation Director, William J. Burns, who had previously run his own detective agency, appointed 26-year-old J. Edgar Hoover as Assistant Director. Hoover, a graduate of George Washington University Law School, had worked for the Department of Justice since 1917, where he headed the enemy alien operations during World War I and assisted in the General Intelligence Division under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, investigating suspected anarchists and communists.

After Harding died in 1923, his successor, Calvin Coolidge, appointed replacements for Harding's cronies in the Cabinet. For the new Attorney General, Coolidge appointed attorney Harlan Fiske Stone. Stone then, on May 10, 1924, selected Hoover to head the Bureau of Investigation. By inclination and training, Hoover embodied the Progressive tradition. His appointment ensured that the Bureau of Investigation would keep that tradition alive.

When Hoover took over, the Bureau of Investigation had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents who worked in field offices in nine cities. By the end of the decade, there were approximately 30 field offices, with Divisional headquarters in New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Portland. He immediately fired those Agents he considered unqualified and proceeded to professionalize the organization. For example, Hoover abolished the seniority rule of promotion and introduced uniform performance appraisals. At the beginning of the decade, the Bureau of Investigation established field offices in nine cities. He also scheduled regular inspections of the operations in all field offices. Then, in January 1928, Hoover established a formal training course for new Agents, including the requirement that New Agents had to be in the 25-35 year range to apply. He also returned to the earlier preference for Special Agents with law or accounting experience.

The new Director was also keenly aware that the Bureau of Investigation could not fight crime without public support. In remarks prepared for the Attorney General in 1925, he wrote, "The Agents of the Bureau of Investigation have been impressed with the fact that the real problem of law enforcement is in trying to obtain the cooperation and sympathy of the public and that they cannot hope to get such cooperation until they themselves merit the respect of the public." Also in 1925, Agent Edwin C. Shanahan became the first Agent to be killed in the line of duty when he was murdered by a car thief.

In the early days of Hoover's directorship, a long held goal of American law enforcement was achieved: the establishment of an Identification Division. Tracking criminals by means of identification records had been considered a crucial tool of law enforcement since the 19th century, and matching fingerprints was considered the most accurate method. By 1922, many large cities had started their own fingerprint collections.

In keeping with the Progressive Era tradition of federal assistance to localities, the Department of Justice created a Bureau of Criminal Identification in 1905 in order to provide a centralized reference collection of fingerprint cards. In 1907, the collection was moved, as a money-saving measure, to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where it was staffed by convicts. Understandably suspicious of this arrangement, police departments formed their own centralized identification bureau maintained by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It refused to share its data with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. In 1924, Congress was persuaded to merge the two collections in Washington, D.C., under Bureau of Investigation administration. As a result, law enforcement agencies across the country began contributing fingerprint cards to the Bureau of Investigation by 1926.

By the end of the decade, Special Agent training was institutionalized, the field office inspection system was solidly in place, and the National Division of Identification and Information was collecting and compiling uniform crime statistics for the entire United States. In addition, studies were underway that would lead to the creation of the Technical Laboratory and Uniform Crime Reports. The Bureau was equipped to end the "lawless years."

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The 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression brought hard times to America. Hard times, in turn, created more criminals--and also led Americans to escape their troubles through newspapers, radio, and movies.

To combat the crime wave, President Franklin D. Roosevelt influenced Congress in his first administration to expand federal jurisdiction, and his Attorney General, Homer Cummings, fought an unrelenting campaign against rampant crime. One case highlighting the rampant crime included the swindling and murder of members of the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma for the rights to their oil fields.

Noting the widespread interest of the media in this war against crime, Hoover carried the message of FBI work through them to the American people. For example, in 1932, the first issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin - then called Fugitives Wanted by Police, was published. Hoover became as adept at publicizing his agency's work as he was at administering it. Prior to 1933, Bureau Agents had developed an esprit de corps, but the public considered them interchangeable with other federal investigators. Three years later, mere identification with the FBI was a source of special pride to its employees and commanded instant recognition and respect from the public. By the end of the decade, the Bureau had field offices in 42 cities and employed 654 Special Agents and 1141 Support Employees.

During the early and mid-1930s several crucial decisions solidified the Bureau's position as the nation's premier law enforcement agency. Responding to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, in 1932, Congress passed a federal kidnapping statute. Then in May and June 1934, with gangsters like John Dillinger evading capture by crossing over state lines, it passed a number of federal crime laws that significantly enhanced the Bureau's jurisdiction. In the wake of the Kansas City Massacre, Congress also gave Bureau Agents statutory authority to carry guns and make arrests.

The Bureau of Investigation was renamed the United States Bureau of Investigation on July 1, 1932. Then, beginning July 1, 1933, the Department of Justice experimented for almost two years with a Division of Investigation that included the Bureau of Prohibition. Public confusion between Bureau of Investigation Special Agents and Prohibition Agents led to a permanent name change in 1935 for the agency composed of Department of Justice's investigators: the Federal Bureau of Investigation was thus born.

Contributing to its forensic expertise, the Bureau established its Technical Laboratory in 1932. Journalist Rex Collier called it "a novel research laboratory where government criminologists will match wits with underworld cunning." Originally the small laboratory operated strictly as a research facility. However, it benefitted from expanded federal funding, eventually housing specialized microscopes and extensive reference collections of guns, watermarks, typefaces, and automobile tire designs.

In 1935, the FBI National Academy was established to train police officers in modern investigative methods, since at that time only a few states and localities provided formal training to their peace officers. The National Academy taught investigative techniques to police officials throughout the United States, and starting in the 1940s, from all over the world.

The legal tools given to the FBI by Congress, as well as Bureau initiatives to upgrade its own professionalism and that of law enforcement, resulted in the arrest or demise of all the major gangsters by 1936. By that time, however, Fascism in Adolph Hitler's Germany and Benito Mussolini's Italy, and Communism in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union threatened American democratic principles. With war on the horizon, a new set of challenges faced the FBI.

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Germany, Italy, and Japan embarked on an unchecked series of invasions during the late 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini supported the Spanish Falangists in their successful civil war against the "Loyalist" Spanish government (1937-39). Although many Europeans and North Americans considered the Spanish Civil War an opportunity to destroy Fascism, the United States, Great Britain, and France remained neutral; only Russia supported the Loyalists. To the shock of those who admired Russia for its active opposition to Fascism, Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact in August 1939. The following month Germany and Soviet Russia seized Poland. A short time later, Russia overran the Baltic States. Finland, while maintaining its independence, lost western Karelia to Russia. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, which formed the "Axis" with Japan and Italy--and World War II began. The United States, however, continued to adhere to the neutrality acts it had passed in the mid-1930s.

As these events unfolded in Europe, the American Depression continued. The Depression provided as fertile an environment for radicalism in the United States as it did in Europe. European Fascists had their counterparts and supporters in the United States in the German-American Bund, the Silver Shirts, and similar groups. At the same time, labor unrest, racial disturbances, and sympathy for the Spanish Loyalists presented an unparalleled opportunity for the American Communist Party to gain adherents. The FBI was alert to these Fascist and Communist groups as threats to American security.

Authority to investigate these organizations came in 1936 with President Roosevelt's authorization through Secretary of State Cordell Hull. A 1939 Presidential Directive further strengthened the FBI's authority to investigate subversives in the United States, and Congress reinforced it by passing the Smith Act in 1940, outlawing advocacy of violent overthrow of the government.

With the actual outbreak of war in 1939, the responsibilities of the FBI escalated. Subversion, sabotage, and espionage became major concerns. In addition to Agents trained in general intelligence work, at least one Agent trained in defense plant protection was placed in each of the FBI's 42 field offices. The FBI also developed a network of informational sources, often using members of fraternal or veterans' organizations. With leads developed by these intelligence networks and through their own work, Special Agents investigated potential threats to national security.

Great Britain stood virtually alone against the Axis powers after France fell to the Germans in 1940. An Axis victory in Europe and Asia would threaten democracy in North America. Because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the American Communist Party and its sympathizers posed a double-edged threat to American interests. Under the direction of Russia, the American Communist Party vigorously advocated continued neutrality for the United States.

In 1940 and 1941, the United States moved further and further away from neutrality, actively aiding the Allies. In late 1940, Congress reestablished the draft. The FBI was responsible for locating draft evaders and deserters.

Without warning, the Germans attacked Russia on June 22, 1941. Thereafter, the FBI focused its internal security efforts on potentially dangerous German, Italian, and Japanese nationals as well as native-born Americans whose beliefs and activities aided the Axis powers.

The FBI also participated in intelligence collection. Here the Technical Laboratory played a pioneering role. Its highly skilled and inventive staff cooperated with engineers, scientists, and cryptographers in other agencies to enable the United States to penetrate and sometimes control the flow of information from the belligerents in the Western Hemisphere.

Sabotage investigations were another FBI responsibility. In June 1942, a major, yet unsuccessful, attempt at sabotage was made on American soil. Two German submarines let off four saboteurs each at Amagansett, Long Island, and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. These men had been trained by Germany in explosives, chemistry, secret writing, and how to blend into American surroundings. While still in German clothes, the New York group encountered a Coast Guard sentinel patrolling the beach, who ultimately allowed them to pass. However, afraid of capture, saboteur George Dasch turned himself in--and assisted the FBI in locating and arresting the rest of the team. The swift capture of these Nazi saboteurs helped to allay fear of Axis subversion and bolstered Americans' faith in the FBI.

Also, before U.S. entry into the War, the FBI uncovered another major espionage ring. This group, the Frederick Duquesne spy ring, was the largest one discovered up to that time. The FBI was assisted by a loyal American with German relatives who acted as a double agent. For nearly two years the FBI ran a radio station for him, learning what Germany was sending to its spies in the United States while controlling the information that was being transmitted to Germany. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction of 33 spies.

War for the United States began December 7, 1941, when Japanese armed forces attacked ships and facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan, and the next day Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. By 9:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on December 7, the FBI was in a wartime mode. FBI Headquarters and the 54 field offices were placed on 24-hour schedules. On December 7 and 8, the FBI arrested previously identified aliens who threatened national security and turned them over to military or immigration authorities.

At this time, the FBI augmented its Agent force with National Academy graduates, who took an abbreviated training course. As a result, the total number of FBI employees rose from 7,400 to over 13,000, including approximately 4,000 Agents, by the end of 1943.

Traditional war-related investigations did not occupy all the FBI's time. For example, the Bureau continued to carry out civil rights investigations. Segregation, which was legal at the time, was the rule in the Armed Services and in virtually the entire defense industry in the 1940s. Under pressure from African-American organizations, the President appointed a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). The FEPC had no enforcement authority. However, the FBI could arrest individuals who impeded the war effort. The Bureau assisted the FEPC when a Philadelphia transit workers' union went out on strike against an FEPC desegregation order. The strike ended when it appeared that the FBI was about to arrest its leaders.

The most serious discrimination during World War II was the decision to evacuate Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast and send them to internment camps. Because the FBI had arrested the individuals whom it considered security threats, FBI Director Hoover took the position that confining others was unnecessary. The President and Attorney General, however, chose to support the military assessment that evacuation and internment were imperative. Ultimately, the FBI became responsible for arresting curfew and evacuation violators.

While most FBI personnel during the war worked traditional war-related or criminal cases, one contingent of Agents was unique. Separated from Bureau rolls, these Agents, with the help of FBI Legal Attaches, composed the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) in Latin America. Established by President Roosevelt in 1940, the SIS was to provide information on Axis activities in South America and to destroy its intelligence and propaganda networks. Several hundred thousand Germans or German descendants and numerous Japanese lived in South America. They provided pro-Axis pressure and cover for Axis communications facilities. Nevertheless, in every South American country, the SIS was instrumental in bringing about a situation in which, by 1944, continued support for the Nazis became intolerable or impractical.

Non-war acts were not limited to civil rights cases. In 1940, the FBI Disaster Squad was created when the FBI Identification Division was called upon to identify some Bureau employees who were on a flight which had crashed near Lovettsville, Virginia.

In April 1945, President Roosevelt died, and Vice President Harry Truman took office as President. Before the end of the month, Hitler committed suicide and the German commander in Italy surrendered. Although the May 1945 surrender of Germany ended the war in Europe, war continued in the Pacific until August 14, 1945.

The world that the FBI faced in September 1945 was very different from the world of 1939 when the war began. American isolationism had effectively ended, and, economically, the United States had become the world's most powerful nation. At home, organized labor had achieved a strong foothold; African Americans and women, having tasted equality during wartime labor shortages, had developed aspirations and the means of achieving the goals that these groups had lacked before the war. The American Communist Party possessed an unparalleled confidence, while overseas the Soviet Union strengthened its grasp on the countries it had wrested from German occupation--making it plain that its plans to expand Communist influence had not abated. And hanging over the euphoria of a world once more at peace was the mushroom cloud of atomic weaponry.

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In February 1946 Stalin gave a public address in which he implied that future wars were inevitable until Communism replaced capitalism worldwide. Events in Europe and North America convinced Congress that Stalin was well on his way to achieving his goal. The Russian veto prevented the United Nations from curbing Soviet expansion under its auspices.

Americans feared Communist expansion was not limited to Europe. By 1947, ample evidence existed that pro-Soviet individuals had infiltrated the American Government. In June, 1945, the FBI raided the offices of Amerasia, a magazine concerned with the Far East, and discovered a large number of classified State Department documents. Several months later the Canadians arrested 22 people for trying to steal atomic secrets. Previously, Americans felt secure behind their monopoly of the atomic bomb. Fear of a Russian bomb now came to dominate American thinking. The Soviets detonated their own bomb in 1949.

Counteracting the Communist threat became a paramount focus of government at all levels, as well as the private sector. While U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating Communist expansion abroad, many U.S. citizens sought to defeat the Communist threat at home. The American Communist Party worked through front organizations or influenced other Americans who agreed with their current propaganda ("fellow travelers").

Since 1917, the FBI and its predecessor agencies had investigated suspected acts of espionage and sabotage. In 1939 and again in 1943, Presidential directives had authorized the FBI to carry out investigations of threats to national security. This role was clarified and expanded under Presidents Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Any public or private agency or individual with information about subversive activities was urged to report it to the FBI. A poster to that effect was distributed to police departments throughout the country. At the same time, it warned Americans to "avoid reporting malicious gossip or idle rumors." The FBI's authority to conduct background investigations on present and prospective government employees also expanded dramatically in the postwar years. The 1946 Atomic Energy Act gave the FBI "responsibility for determining the loyalty of individuals ...having access to restricted Atomic Energy data." Later, executive orders from both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower gave the FBI responsibility for investigating allegations of disloyalty among federal employees. In these cases, the agency requesting the investigation made the final determination; the FBI only conducted the investigation and reported the results. Many suspected and convicted spies, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had been federal employees. Therefore, background investigations were considered to be just as vital as cracking major espionage cases.

Despite the threats to the United States of subversion and espionage, the FBI's extended jurisdiction, and the time-consuming nature of background investigations, the Bureau did not surpass the number of Agents it had during World War II--or its yearly wartime budget--until the Korean War in the early 1950s. After the Korean War ended, the number of Agents stabilized at about 6,200, while the budget began a steady climb in 1957.

Several factors converged to undermine domestic Communism in the 1950s. Situations like the Soviet defeat of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 caused many members to abandon the American Communist Party. However, the FBI also played a role in diminishing Party influence. The Bureau was responsible for the investigation and arrest of alleged spies and Smith Act violators, most of whom were convicted. Through Hoover's speeches, articles, testimony, and books like Masters of Deceit, the FBI helped alert the public to the Communist threat.

The FBI's role in fighting crime also expanded in the postwar period through its assistance to state and local law enforcement and through increased jurisdictional responsibility. On March 14, 1950, the FBI began its "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" List to increase law enforcement's ability to capture dangerous fugitives. Advances in forensic science and technical development enabled the FBI to devote a significant proportion of its resources to assisting state and local law enforcement agencies.

A dramatic example of aid to a state occurred after the midair explosion of a plane over Colorado in 1955. The FBI Laboratory examined hundreds of airplane parts, pieces of cargo, and the personal effects of passengers. It pieced together evidence of a bomb explosion from passenger luggage, then painstakingly looked into the backgrounds of the 44 victims. Ultimately, Agents identified the perpetrator and secured his confession, then turned the case over to Colorado authorities who successfully prosecuted it in a state court.

At the same time, Congress gave the FBI new federal laws with which to fight civil rights violations, racketeering, and gambling. These new laws included the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964; the 1961 Crimes Aboard Aircraft Act; an expanded Federal Fugitive Act; and the Sports Bribery Act of 1964.

Up to this time, the interpretation of federal civil rights statutes by the Supreme Court was so narrow that few crimes, however heinous, qualified to be investigated by federal agents.

The turning point in federal civil rights actions occurred in the summer of 1964, with the murder of voting registration workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the Department of Justice's request, the FBI conducted the investigation as it had in previous, less-publicized racial incidents. The case against the perpetrators took years to go through the courts. Only after 1966, when the Supreme Court made it clear that federal law could be used to prosecute civil rights violations, were seven men found guilty. By the late 1960s, the confluence of unambiguous federal authority and local support for civil rights prosecutions allowed the FBI to play an influential role in enabling African Americans to vote, serve on juries, and use public accommodations on an equal basis.

Other civil rights investigations included the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the arrest of James Earl Ray, and the murder of Medger Evers, Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP, with the arrest of Byron De La Beckwith who, after two acquittals, was finally found guilty in 1994.

Involvement of the FBI in organized crime investigations also was hampered by the lack of possible federal laws covering crimes perpetrated by racketeers. After Prohibition, many mob activities were carried out locally, or if interstate, they did not constitute major violations within the Bureau's jurisdiction.

An impetus for federal legislation occurred in 1957 with the discovery by Sergeant Croswell of the New York State Police that many of the best known mobsters in the United States had met together in upstate New York. The FBI collected information on all the individuals identified at the meeting, confirming the existence of a national organized-crime network. However, it was not until an FBI Agent persuaded mob insider Joseph Valachi to testify that the public learned firsthand of the nature of La Cosa Nostra, the American "mafia."

On the heels of Valachi's disclosures, Congress passed two new laws to strengthen federal racketeering and gambling statutes that had been passed in the 1950s and early 1960s to aid the Bureau's fight against mob influence. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 provided for the use of court-ordered electronic surveillance in the investigation of certain specified violations. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Statute of 1970 allowed organized groups to be prosecuted for all of their diverse criminal activities, without the crimes being linked by a perpetrator or all-encompassing conspiracy. Along with greater use of Agents for undercover work by the late 1970s, these provisions helped the FBI develop cases that, in the 1980s, put almost all the major traditional crime family heads in prison.

By the end of the 1960s, the Bureau employed 6,703 Special Agents and 9,320 Support Personnel in 58 field offices and twelve Legal Attache offices.

A national tragedy produced another expansion of FBI jurisdiction. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the crime was a local homicide; no federal law addressed the murder of a President. Nevertheless, President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked the Bureau with conducting the investigation. Congress then passed a new law to ensure that any such act in the future would be a federal crime.

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President Kennedy's assassination introduced the violent aspect of the era known as the "Sixties." This period, which actually lasted into the mid-1970s, was characterized by idealism, but also by increased urban crime and a propensity for some groups to resort to violence in challenging the "establishment."

Most Americans objecting to involvement in Vietnam or to other policies wrote to Congress or carried peace signs in orderly demonstrations. Nevertheless, in 1970 alone, an estimated 3,000 bombings and 50,000 bomb threats occurred in the United States.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam brought together numerous anti-establishment groups and gave them a common goal. The convergence of crime, violence, civil rights issues, and potential national security issues ensured that the FBI played a significant role during this troubled period.

Presidents Johnson and Nixon and Director Hoover shared with many Americans a perception of the potential dangers to this country from some who opposed its policies in Vietnam. As Hoover observed in a 1966 PTA Magazine article, the United States was confronted with "a new style in conspiracy--conspiracy that is extremely subtle and devious and hence difficult to understand...a conspiracy reflected by questionable moods and attitudes, by unrestrained individualism, by nonconformism in dress and speech, even by obscene language, rather than by formal membership in specific organizations."

The New Left movement's "romance with violence" involved, among others, four young men living in Madison, Wisconsin. Antiwar sentiment was widespread at the University of Wisconsin (UW), where two of them were students. During the very early morning of August 24, 1970, the four used a powerful homemade bomb to blow up Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Math Research Center at UW. A graduate student was killed and three others were injured.

That crime occurred a few months after National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded several others during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University. The FBI investigated both incidents. Together, these events helped end the "romance with violence" for all but a handful of hardcore New Left revolutionaries. Draft dodging and property damage had been tolerable to many antiwar sympathizers. Deaths were not.

By 1971, with few exceptions, the most extreme members of the antiwar movement concentrated on more peaceable, yet still radical tactics, such as the clandestine publication of The Pentagon Papers. However, the violent Weathermen and its successor groups continued to challenge the FBI into the 1980s.

No specific guidelines for FBI Agents covering national security investigations had been developed by the Administration or Congress; these, in fact, were not issued until 1976. Therefore, the FBI addressed the threats from the militant "New Left" as it had those from Communists in the 1950s and the KKK in the 1960s. It used both traditional investigative techniques and counterintelligence programs ("Cointelpro") to counteract domestic terrorism and conduct investigations of individuals and organizations who threatened terroristic violence. Wiretapping and other intrusive techniques were discouraged by Hoover in the mid-1960s and eventually were forbidden completely unless they conformed to the Omnibus Crime Control Act. Hoover formally terminated all "Cointelpro" operations on April 28, 1971.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died on May 2, 1972, just shy of 48 years as the FBI Director. He was 77. The next day his body lay in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol, an honor accorded only 21 other Americans.

Hoover's successor would have to contend with the complex turmoil of that troubled time. In 1972, unlike 1924 when Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone selected Hoover, the President appointed the FBI Director with confirmation by the Senate. President Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray as Acting Director the day after Hoover's death. After retiring from a distinguished Naval career, Gray had continued in public service as the Department of Justice's Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. As Acting Director, Gray appointed the first women as Special Agents since the 1920s.

Shortly after Gray became Acting Director, five men were arrested photographing documents at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The break-in had been authorized by Republican Party officials. Within hours, the White House began its effort to cover up its role, and the new Acting FBI Director was inadvertently drawn into it. FBI Agents undertook a thorough investigation of the break-in and related events. However, when Gray's questionable personal role was revealed, he withdrew his name from the Senate's consideration to be Director. He was replaced hours after he resigned on April 27, 1973, by William Ruckleshaus, a former Congressman and the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who remained until Clarence Kelley's appointment as Director on July 9, 1973. Kelley, who was Kansas City Police Chief when he received the appointment, had been an FBI Agent from 1940 to 1961.

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Three days after Director Kelley's appointment, top aides in the Nixon Administration resigned amid charges of White House efforts to obstruct justice in the Watergate case. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in October, following charges of tax evasion. Then, following impeachment hearings that were broadcast over television to the American public throughout 1974, President Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as President that same day. In granting an unconditional pardon to ex-President Nixon one month later, he vowed to heal the nation.

Director Kelley similarly sought to restore public trust in the FBI and in law enforcement. He instituted numerous policy changes that targeted the training and selection of FBI and law enforcement leaders, the procedures of investigative intelligence collection, and the prioritizing of criminal programs. All of this was done while continuing open investigations. One such case was the Patty Hearst kidnapping investigation.

In 1974, Kelley instituted Career Review Boards and programs to identify and train potential managers. For upper management of the entire law enforcement community, the FBI, in cooperation with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chief Administrators, started the National Executive Institute, which provided high-level executive training and encouraged future operational cooperation.

Kelley also responded to scrutiny by Congress and the media on whether FBI methods of collecting intelligence in domestic security and counterintelligence investigations abridged Constitutional rights.

The FBI had traditionally used its own criteria for intelligence collection, based on executive orders and blanket authority granted by attorney generals. After congressional hearings, Attorney General Edward Levi established finely detailed guidelines for the first time. The guidelines for FBI foreign counterintelligence investigations went into effect on March 10, 1976, and for domestic security investigations on April 5, 1976 (The latter were superseded March 21, 1983).

Kelley's most significant management innovation, however, was implementing the concept of "Quality over Quantity" investigations. He directed each field office to set priorities based on the types of cases most important in its territory and to concentrate resources on those priority matters. Strengthening the "Quality over Quantity" concept, the FBI as a whole established three national priorities: foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, and white-collar crime. To handle the last priority, the Bureau intensified its recruitment of accountants. It also stepped up its use of undercover operations in major cases.

During Kelley's tenure as Director, the FBI made a strong effort to develop an Agent force with more women and one that was more reflective of the ethnic composition of the United States. By the late 1970s nearly 8,000 Special Agents and 11,000 Support Employees worked in 59 Field Offices and 13 Legal Attache offices.

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In 1978, Director Kelley resigned and was replaced by former federal Judge William H. Webster. At the time of his appointment, Webster was serving as Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He had previously been a Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Also in 1978, the FBI began using laser technology in the Identification Division to detect latent crime scene fingerprints.

In 1982, following an explosion of terrorist incidents worldwide, Webster made counterterrorism a fourth national priority. He also expanded FBI efforts in the three others: foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, and white-collar crime. Part of this expansion was the creation of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

The FBI solved so many espionage cases during the mid-1980s that the press dubbed 1985 "the year of the spy." The most serious espionage damage uncovered by the FBI was perpetrated by the John Walker spy ring and by former National Security Agency employee William Pelton.

Throughout the 1980s, the illegal drug trade severely challenged the resources of American law enforcement. To ease this challenge, in 1982 the Attorney General gave the FBI concurrent jurisdiction with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over narcotics violations in the United States. The expanded Department of Justice attention to drug crimes resulted in the confiscation of millions of dollars in controlled substances, the arrests of major narcotics figures, and the dismantling of important drug rings. One of the most publicized, dubbed "the Pizza Connection" case, involved the heroin trade in the United States and Italy. It resulted in 18 convictions, including a former leader of the Sicilian Mafia. Then Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis J. Freeh, who was to be appointed FBI Director in 1993, was key to prosecutive successes in the case.

On another front, Webster strengthened the FBI's response to white-collar crimes. Public corruption was attacked nationwide. Convictions resulting from FBI investigations included members of Congress (ABSCAM), the judiciary (GREYLORD), and state legislatures in California and South Carolina. A major investigation culminating in 1988 unveiled corruption in defense procurement (ILLWIND).

As the United States faced a financial crisis in the failures of savings and loan associations during the 1980s, the FBI uncovered instances of fraud that lay behind many of those failures. It was perhaps the single largest investigative effort undertaken by the FBI to that date: from investigating 10 bank failures in 1981, it had 282 bank failures under investigation by February 1987. Resources to investigate fraud during the savings and loan crisis were provided by the Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enhancement Act.

In 1984, the FBI acted as lead agency for security of the Los Angeles Olympics. In the course of its efforts to anticipate and prepare for acts of terrorism and street crime, it built important bridges of interaction and cooperation with local, state, and other federal agencies, as well as agencies of other countries. It also unveiled the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team as a domestic force capable of responding to complex hostage situations such as tragically occurred in Munich at the 1972 games.

Perhaps as a result of the Bureau's emphasis on combatting terrorism, such acts within the United States decreased dramatically during the 1980s. In 1986, Congress had expanded FBI jurisdiction to cover terrorist acts against U.S. citizens outside the U.S. boundaries. Later, in 1989, the Department of Justice authorized the FBI to arrest terrorists, drug traffickers, and other fugitives abroad without the consent of the foreign country in which they resided.

Expanded resources were not limited to "established" crime areas like terrorism and violent crime. In 1984, the FBI established the Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) to retrieve evidence from computers (Need to put as subt. est 1984, full in 1991).

On May 26, 1987, Judge Webster left the FBI to become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Executive Assistant Director John E. Otto became Acting Director and served in that position until November 2, 1987. During his tenure, Acting Director Otto designated drug investigations as the FBI's fifth national priority.

On November 2, 1987, former federal Judge William Steele Sessions was sworn in as FBI Director. Prior to his appointment as FBI Director, Sessions served as the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. He had previously served as a District Judge and as U.S. Attorney for that district.

Under Director Sessions, crime prevention efforts, in place since Director Kelley's tenure, were expanded to include a drug demand reduction program. FBI offices nationwide began working closely with local school and civic groups to educate young people to the dangers of drugs. Subsequent nationwide community outreach efforts under that program evolved and expanded through such initiatives as the Adopt-A-School/Junior G-Man Program. The expansion in initiatives required a larger workforce and by 1988, the FBI employed 9663 Special Agents and 13651 Support Employees in 58 Field Offices and 15 Legal Attaches.

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The dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 electrified the world and dramatically rang up the Iron Curtain on the final act in the Cold War: the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, which occurred on December 25, 1991.

While world leaders scrambled to reposition their foreign policies and redefine national security parameters, the FBI responded as an agency in January 1992 by reassigning 300 Special Agents from foreign counterintelligence duties to violent crime investigations across the country. It was an unprecedented opportunity to intensify efforts in burgeoning domestic crime problems--and at the same time to rethink and retool FBI national security programs in counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

In response to a 40-percent increase in crimes of violence over the previous 10 years, Director Sessions had designated the investigation of violent crime as the FBI's sixth national priority program in 1989. By November 1991 the FBI had created "Operation Safe Streets" in Washington, D.C.--a concept of federal, state, and local police task forces targeting fugitives and gangs. Therefore, it was now ready to expand this operational assistance to police nationwide.

At the same time, the FBI Laboratory helped change the face of violent criminal identification. Its breakthrough use of DNA technology enabled genetic crime-scene evidence to positively identify--or rule out--suspects by comparing their particular DNA patterns. This unique identifier enabled the creation of a national DNA Index, similar to the fingerprint index, which had been implemented in 1924.

The FBI also strengthened its response to white-collar crimes. Popularized as "crime in the suites," these nonviolent crimes had steadily increased as automation in and deregulation of industries had created new environments for fraud. Resources were, accordingly, redirected to combat the new wave of large-scale insider bank fraud and financial crimes; to address criminal sanctions in new federal environmental legislation; and to establish long-term investigations of complex health care frauds.

At the same time, the FBI reassessed its strategies in defending national security, now no longer defined as the containment of communism and the prevention of nuclear war.

By creating the National Security Threat List, which was approved by the Attorney General in 1991, it changed its approach from defending against hostile intelligence agencies to protecting U.S. information and technologies. It thus identified all countries--not just hostile intelligence services--that pose a continuing and serious intelligence threat to the United States. It also defined expanded threat issues, including the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; the loss of critical technologies; and the improper collection of trade secrets and proprietary information. As President Clinton was to note in 1994, with the dramatic expansion of the global economy "national security now means economic security."

Two events occurred in late 1992 and early 1993 that were to have a major impact on FBI policies and operations. In August 1992, the FBI responded to the shooting death of Deputy U.S. Marshal William Degan, who was killed at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, while participating in a surveillance of federal fugitive Randall Weaver. In the course of the standoff, Weaver's wife was accidentally shot and killed by an FBI sniper.

Eight months later, at a remote compound outside Waco, Texas, FBI Agents sought to end a 51-day standoff with members of a heavily armed religious sect who had killed four officers of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Instead, as Agents watched in horror, the compound burned to the ground from fires lit by members of the sect. Eighty persons, including children, died in the blaze.

These two events set the stage for public and congressional inquiries into the FBI's ability to respond to crisis situations.

On July 19, 1993, following allegations of ethics violations committed by Director Sessions, President Clinton removed him from office and appointed Deputy Director Floyd I. Clarke as Acting FBI Director. The President noted that Director Sessions' most significant achievement was broadening the FBI to include more women and minorities.

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Louis J. Freeh was sworn in as Director of the FBI on September 1, 1993. Freeh had served as an FBI Agent from 1975 to 1981. He was appointed U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York in 1991 and served on that Court until he was nominated to be Director of the FBI during the summer of 1993.

Director Freeh began his tenure with a clearly articulated agenda to respond to deepening and evolving crime problems both at home and abroad. During the summer of 1994, determined to forge strong, international police partnerships, Director Freeh led a delegation of high-level diplomatic and federal law enforcement officials to meet with senior officials of 11 European nations on international crime issues. At the outset, Richard Holbrooke, US Ambassador to Germany, declared, "This is the evolving American foreign policy. Law Enforcement is at the forefront of our national interest in this part of the world." On July 4, 1994, Director Freeh officially announced the opening of an FBI Legal Attaché Office in Moscow, the old seat of Russian communism.

Subsequently, the Bureau sharpened joint efforts against organized crime, drug-trafficking, and terrorism, and it expanded standardized training of international police in investigative processes, ethics, leadership, and professionalism, including in April 1995, the opening of the first International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Budapest, Hungary (pictured left). The Bureau also expanded its international presence by opening 21 new Legal Attaché offices overseas.

The Bureau also mounted aggressive programs in specific criminal areas. During the years 1993 through 1996, these efforts paid off in successful investigations as diverse as the World Trade Center bombing in New York City (1993); the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995); the UNABOMBER Theodore Kaczynski (1996); and the arrests of Mexican drug-trafficker Juan Garcia-Abrego (1996) and Russian crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov (1995). In response to public outcry over the tragedies at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the Bureau formed the Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) to deal more efficiently with crisis situations.

As computers and access to the Internet became commonplace in homes across the United States, the FBI began to put in place measures to address crime in cyberspace. It created the Computer Investigations and Infrastructure Threat Assessment Center (CITAC) to respond to physical and cyber attacks against US infrastructure. The FBI has also played a crucial role in the investigation and prevention of computer crimes. In 1991, the FBI's Computer Analysis and Response Teams (CART) began to provide investigators with the technical expertise necessary to obtain evidence from the computers of suspects. In 1998, the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) was created to monitor the dissemination of computer viruses, worms, and other malicious programs and to warn government and business computer users of these dangers. In addition, having begun in the FBI's Baltimore Division in 1995, but branching out to most FBI field offices, the Bureau's Innocent Images Program has successfully identified and stopped large numbers of pedophiles who have used the Internet to purvey child pornography and to lure children into situations where they could be harmed.

Between 1993 and 2001, the FBI's mission and resources expanded to address the increasingly international nature of crime in US localities. The FBI's budget grew by more than $1.27 billion as the Bureau hired 5,029 new Agents and more than 4,000 new Support Personnel. To prepare the FBI for both domestic and foreign lawlessness in the 21st century, Director Freeh spearheaded the effort by law enforcement to ensure its ability to carry out court-authorized electronic surveillance in major investigations affecting public safety and national security in the face of telecommunications advances. Important legislation passed during this period included the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, and the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. Director Freeh left the Bureau in June 2001 for a position in the private sector.

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On September 4, 2001, former U.S. Attorney Robert S. Mueller, III was sworn in as FBI Director (2001 to present) with a specific mandate to upgrade the Bureau's information technology infrastructure, to address records management issues, and to enhance FBI foreign counterintelligence analysis and security in the wake of the damage done by former Special Agent and convicted spy Robert Hanssen.

Within days of his entering on duty, however, the September 11 terrorist attacks were launched against New York and Washington. Director Mueller led the FBI's massive investigative efforts in partnership with all U.S. law enforcement, the federal government, and allies overseas. On October 26, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the U.S. Patriot Act, which granted new provisions to address the threat of terrorism, and Director Mueller accordingly accepted on behalf of the Bureau responsibility for protecting the American people against future terrorist attacks. On May 29, 2002, the Attorney General issued revised investigative guidelines to assist the Bureau's counterterrorism efforts.

To support the Bureau's change in mission and to meet newly articulated strategic priorities, Director Mueller called for a reengineering of FBI structure and operations to closely focus the Bureau on prevention of terrorist attacks, on countering foreign intelligence operations against the U.S., and on addressing cybercrime-based attacks and other high-technology crimes. In addition, the Bureau remains dedicated to protecting civil rights, combatting public corruption, organized crime, white-collar crime, and major acts of violent crime. The Bureau has also strengthened its support to federal, county, municipal, and international law enforcement partners and has dedicated itself to upgrading its technological infrastructure to successfully meet each of its priorities.

At the start of the new millennium, the FBI stands dedicated to its core values and "Bright Line" ethical standards. Commitment to these values and standards ensures that the FBI effectively carries out its mission: Protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats; uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States; and provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.

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Directors Then and Now
Photographs and biographies of FBI Directors since 1908
History of the FBI
Detailed description from 1908 to the present
- Origins:
- Early Days:
- Lawless Years:
- The New Deal:
    1933-Late 1930's
- World War II Period:
- Postwar America:
- Vietnam War Era:
Aftermath of Watergate:
- Rise of International    Crime: 1980's
- End of the Cold War:
- Rise of a Wired World:
- Change of Mandate:
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FBI Headquarters
The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building from start to finish

Freedom of Information Act
Thousands of pages of frequently requested historical records

Historic Dates
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Hall of Honor
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Famous Cases
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