Today's FBI: A Short History of the FBI

Attorney General BonaparteOn July 26, 1908, Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte ordered a small force of permanent investigators (organized a month earlier) to report to the Department of Justice’s Chief Examiner, Stanley Finch. AG Bonaparte declared that these investigators would handle all Department of Justice (DOJ) investigative matters, except certain bank frauds. At first, little seemed to come of AG Bonaparte’s reorganization.

Chief Examiner, Stanley FinchIn 1909, this investigator force was named the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). At that time, it investigated antitrust matters, land fraud, copyright violations, peonage, and some twenty other matters. Over the next decade, federal criminal authority and Bureau jurisdiction were extended by laws such as the 1910 “White-Slave Traffic” Act that put responsibility for interstate prostitution under the Bureau for a time and the 1919 Dyer Act that did the same for interstate auto-theft. U.S. entry into WWI in April 1917 led to further increases in the Bureau’s jurisdiction. Congress and President Wilson assigned the BOI’s three hundred employees responsibility for espionage, sabotage, sedition, and selective service matters.

The 1920’s brought Prohibition, the automobile, and an increase in criminal activity. Bank robbers, bootleggers, and kidnappers took advantage of jurisdictional boundaries by crossing state lines to elude capture. A criminal culture marked by violent gangsters flourished, but no federal law gave the BOI authority to tackle their crimes, and other law enforcement efforts were fragmented. The Bureau addressed these matters as its jurisdiction permitted throughout the 1920s.

Director John Edgar HooverIn 1924, Attorney General Harlan Stone appointed John Edgar Hoover as Director. Director Hoover (1924-1972) implemented a number of reforms to clean up what had become a politicized Bureau under the leadership of William J. Burns (1921-1924). Hoover reinstated merit hiring, introduced professional training of new agents, demanded regular inspections of all Bureau operations, and required strict professionalism in the Bureau’s work.

Under Hoover, the Bureau also began to emphasize service to other law enforcement agencies. The Identification Division was created in 1924 to provide U.S. police a means to identify criminals across jurisdictional boundaries. The Technical Crime Laboratory, created in 1932, provided forensic analysis and research for law enforcement, and the FBI National Academy, opened in 1935, provided standardized professional training for America’s law enforcement communities.

Bonnie and Clyde

In answer to the violent crime of the 1930s, Congress began to assign and expand new authorities to the Bureau. The kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son in 1932 led to the passage of the Federal Kidnapping Act, which allowed the Bureau to investigate interstate kidnappings. The 1933 Kansas City Massacre spurred the passage of the 1934 May/June Crime Bills. These laws gave the Bureau authority to act in many new areas, to make arrests, and to carry weapons. Renamed “Federal Bureau of Investigation” in 1935, the FBI dealt with gangsters severely, earning its anonymous agents the nickname “G-Men.”

As the gangster threat subsided, a threat of a different nature emerged. In 1936, President Roosevelt directed the FBI to investigate potential subversion by Nazi and Communist organizations. In 1940, he tasked the Bureau with responsibility for foreign intelligence in the Western Hemisphere and domestic security in the United States. In response, the Bureau created a Special Intelligence Service (SIS) Division in June 1940. The SIS sent undercover FBI agents throughout the Western Hemisphere. These agents successfully identified some 1,300 Axis intelligence agents (about 10 percent of whom were prosecuted). When President Truman ordered the program’s end in 1947, several former SIS offices became the backbone of the FBI’s foreign liaison efforts, now serving as Legal Attaché Offices. FBI efforts also thwarted many espionage, sabotage, and propaganda attempts on the home front including Frederick Duquesne’s spy ring in 1941 and George Dasch’s band of saboteurs in 1942.

When Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, concern about the threat of foreign intelligence did not end. Revelations that year from former Soviet intelligence agents like Igor Guzenko and Elizabeth Bentley, information gleaned from FBI investigations during and after the war, and decrypted/decoded Soviet cable traffic called “Venona” (available to the Bureau from 1947), convinced the FBI of the seriousness of the Soviet intelligence threat long before Senator Joseph McCarthy made his 1950 speech about communist “moles.” Under the Hatch Act (1940) and Executive Orders issued in 1947 and 1951, the Bureau exercised responsibility for ensuring the loyalty of those who sought to work in the government. The FBI played a critical role in U.S. handling of the Cold War.

FBI photographs of slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner

In the 1950s, civil rights violations and organized crime became matters of increasing concern. As in the past, lack of jurisdiction hindered the Bureau from effectively responding to these problems when they first emerged as national issues. It was under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Bureau received legislative authority to investigate many of the wrongs done to African Americans in the South and elsewhere. Under existing laws, the Bureau’s efforts against organized crime also started slowly. Then, with the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act, Congress gave the Bureau effective weapons with which to attack organized criminal enterprises, Title III warrants for wiretaps, and the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

During the 1960s, subversion remained a central focus of Bureau efforts. The counter-cultural revolution turned the Bureau’s attention towards violent student movements, as criminal groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers engaged in both legitimate political action and illegal crime. The Bureau responded to the threat of subversion with Counterintelligence Programs, or COINTELPRO, first against the Communist Party (1956), and later against other violent/subversive groups like the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan (1960s). These programs resulted in the Bureau, at times, effectively stepping out of its proper role as a law enforcement agency.

During the 1970s, Bureau actions, which were publicly revealed through a strengthened Freedom of Information Act (1966, amended in 1974), resulted in congressional investigations like the Church Committee and the Pike Committee hearings in 1975. In response to criticisms emerging from these revelations, the Bureau worked with Attorney General Levi to develop guidelines for its domestic counterintelligence investigations.

Operation Greylord was the first undercover operation to investigate corruption in the court room.

In the wake of Director Hoover’s death in May 1972, Director Clarence M. Kelley (1973-1977) refocused FBI investigative priorities to place less emphasis on having a high number of cases and to focus more on the quality of cases handled. Working with the Bureau and Congress in 1976, Attorney General Edward Levi issued a set of investigative guidelines to address the concerns of Bureau critics and to give the FBI the confidence of having public, legal authority behind its use of irreplaceable investigative techniques like wiretaps, informants, and undercover agents. These investigative techniques were used to great effect in cases like ABSCAM (1980), GREYLORD (1984), and UNIRAC (1978). In 1983, as concerns about terrorist acts grew, Attorney General William French Smith revised the Levi Guidelines to adjust the Bureau’s ability to prevent violent radical acts.

Director William H. Webster (1977-1987) built upon Director Kelley’s emphasis on investigative “quality” cases by focusing Bureau efforts on three priority program—White Collar Crime, Organized Crime, and Foreign Counterintelligence. Later, Illegal Drugs (1982), Counterterrorism (1982), and Violent Crimes (1989) were also identified as priority programs. This concentration of resources brought great success against Soviet and East Bloc intelligence as more than 40 spies were arrested between 1977 and 1985. The FBI also made breakthroughs against white-collar crime in investigations like ILLWIND (1988) and LOST TRUST (1990), and in organized crime cases like BRILAB (1981) and the PIZZA CONNECTION (1985).

Oklahoma City Murrah federal building

During the 1990s, criminal and security threats to the United States evolved as new technology and the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc changed the geopolitical world. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building highlighted the potentially catastrophic threat of both international and domestic terrorism. The FBI responded to the emerging international face of crime by aggressively building bridges between U.S. and foreign law enforcement. Under the leadership of Director Louis J. Freeh (1993-2001), the Bureau dramatically expanded its Legat Program (39 offices by the fall of 2000); provided professional law enforcement education to foreign nationals through the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Budapest (opened in 1994) and other international education efforts; and created working groups and other structured liaisons with foreign law enforcement.

The Bureau also strengthened its domestic agenda. Responding to criticism of its actions in the 1993 standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the Bureau revamped its crisis response efforts. The FBI’s commitment to law enforcement service was strengthened by the computerization of its massive fingerprint collection database, enhancements in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and in NCIC 2000, and by the revitalization of the FBI Laboratory. In 1997, the Bureau hired its first professional scientist to head the Lab. The Lab tightened its protocols for evidence control, instituted organizational changes to optimize research specialization, and earned national accreditation.

On September 4, 2001, former U.S. Attorney Robert S. Mueller, III (2001 to present), was sworn in as Director with a mandate to address a number of tough challenges: upgrading the Bureau’s information technology infrastructure; addressing records management issues; and enhancing FBI foreign counterintelligence analysis and security in the wake of the damage done by former Special Agent and convicted spy Robert S. Hanssen.

Pentagon west wall, Septtember 11, 2001

Then, within days of his entering on duty, 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 our allies overseas. The investigation of the attacks was the largest in FBI history.

On October 26, 2001, the President signed into law the USA 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 that would closely focus the Bureau on prevention of terrorist attacks, on countering foreign intelligence operations against the U.S., and on addressing cyber-based attacks and other high technology crimes.

In December 2004, Director Mueller expanded the Office of Intelligence to form the Directorate of Intelligence (DI). The DI manages all FBI intelligence activities—from collection to dissemination—to ensure intelligence activities are integrated with investigative operations.

Beginning in mid-2007, the Bureau launched an aggressive effort to both accelerate and strengthen its intelligence capabilities by creating standard structures and processes for its intelligence functions in the field. With a primary objective of mitigating global terrorist threats through being both actively predictive and preventive, the FBI remains uniquely positioned to counter those threats within a robust U.S. and global intelligence environment.

As the Bureau enhances its ability to counter threats to national security, it remains dedicated to protecting civil rights and combating public corruption, organized crime, white-collar crime, and major acts of violent crime. It is also strengthening its support to federal, county, municipal, and international law enforcement partners. And it is upgrading its technological infrastructure to successfully meet each of its priorities.

For more information on FBI history, including a list of important dates, and biographical information on its Directors, go to

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