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Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the principal investigative unit of the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ). The FBI gathers and reports facts, compiles evidence, and locates witnesses in legal matters in which the United States is or may be a party in interest. In addition, the bureau assists both U.S. and INTERNATIONAL LAW enforcement agencies in crime investigation and personnel training.

The FBI investigates all violations of federal law except those specifically assigned to other federal agencies. The bureau's jurisdiction covers a wide range of crimes, from KIDNAPPING and drug trafficking to the unauthorized use of the Woodsy Owl emblem, the U.S. Forest Service's antipollution mascot (18 U.S.C.A. § 711a). The FBI's authority derives from 28 U.S.C.A. § 533, which enables the attorney general to "appoint officials to detect … crimes against the United States." The bureau also conducts noncriminal investigations, such as background security checks. The FBI does not prosecute crimes, but it assists other law enforcement agencies in investigations that lead to prosecution.

The FBI traces its origins to 1908 when President THEODORE ROOSEVELT instructed Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte to create a force of special agents to work as investigators within the DOJ. In 1909, Attorney General GEORGE W. WICKERSHAM named the elite group the Bureau of Investigation. In 1935, following a series of name changes, the bureau was officially termed the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In its early days, the FBI investigated the relatively small number of federal crimes that existed. These included BANKRUPTCY frauds and antitrust violations. During WORLD WAR I, it was responsible for investigating ESPIONAGE, sabotage, SEDITION, and violations of the SELECTIVE SERVICE Act of 1917 (Act May 18, 1917, c. 15, 40 Stat. 76 [Comp. Stat. 1918, § 2044a-2044k]). In 1919, the bureau broadened its scope to include the investigation of motor vehicle thefts.

The FBI established its reputation as a tenacious investigative force during PROHIBITION, in

J. Edgar Hoover points to a crime map of the United States. He served as FBI director for 48 years, during which the bureau grew in size and expertise, though he was criticized for abuse of power and harrassment of suspects.

the 1930s. Its many undercover probes throughout that era led to the arrests of notorious crime figures such as John Dillinger and AL CAPONE. With the onset of WORLD WAR II and the advent of the atomic age, the FBI increased its size and scope to include domestic and foreign intelligence and counterintelligence probes, background security checks, and investigations of internal security matters for the EXECUTIVE BRANCH.

During the 1960s, the bureau's chief concerns were CIVIL RIGHTS violations and ORGANIZED CRIME operations. Counterterrorism, WHITE-COLLAR CRIMES, illegal drugs, and violent crimes were its focus during the 1970s and 1980s.

The modern FBI divides its investigations among seven major areas: applicant matters (background checks on applicants and candidates for federal positions), civil rights, counterterrorism, foreign counterintelligence, drugs and organized crime, violent crimes and major offenders, and white-collar crimes. It has nine divisions in three offices located at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. These divisions provide program direction and support services to 56 field offices, 400 satellite offices (known as resident agencies), and 4 specialized field installations within the United States, as well as 22 liaison posts outside the United States. The bureau employs approximately 10,000 special agents and over 13,000 support personnel.

In addition to its investigative work on federal crimes, the FBI provides investigative and training support to other law enforcement agencies. The FBI Laboratory, one of the largest and most comprehensive crime laboratories in the world, is the only full-service federal forensic lab. FBI examiners perform crime scene searches, surveillance, fingerprint examinations, and other scientific and technical services. They also train state and local crime laboratory and law enforcement personnel. Through the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), the FBI provides sophisticated identification and information services to local, state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies. Among the aids available through CJIS is a state-of-the-art automated fingerprint identification system. The bureau also offers extensive training programs to FBI employees and other law enforcement personnel at the FBI Academy, in Quantico, Virginia.

The FBI is headed by a director, the first and most famous of whom was J. EDGAR HOOVER. Appointed in 1924 at the age of 29, Hoover led the bureau for 48 years, until his death in 1972. He is credited with building a highly disciplined force of efficient and respected investigators. During Hoover's tenure, the FBI established its centralized fingerprint file, crime laboratory, and training center for police officers. But Hoover was criticized as an autocrat who wielded his power against anyone he considered a threat to U.S. security. He was obsessively anti-Communist, and critics charge that his single-minded quest to root out all political dissent led to the harassment of suspects and suspension of their civil liberties.

L. Patrick Gray III became acting director upon Hoover's death. He was succeeded in 1973 by another acting director, William D. Ruckelshaus, who was replaced later that year by Clarence M. Kelley, a former FBI agent. Kelley is credited with modernizing the bureau, curbing ARBITRARY investigations, and opening the special agent ranks to women and minorities. He presided over the bureau until 1978 when William H. Webster was appointed director. Webster was replaced by acting director John E. Otto in 1987. Otto stepped down later that year and was replaced by William S. Sessions.

During Sessions's tenure, African American and Hispanic agents charged the bureau with RACIAL DISCRIMINATION and harassment. Sessions settled these claims with the groups and instituted policies to increase the number of women and minorities in the agency. In 1993, Sessions was dismissed from his post by President BILL CLINTON amid allegations of unethical conduct. Then Clinton appointed a former FBI agent and federal judge, Louis J. Freeh.

A number of controversies have plague the FBI in recent years, including the handling of the confrontation with white separatist Randall Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992; questions on the handling of the Branch Davidian standoff near Waco, Texas, in 1993; issues with the interrogation of Richard Jewell after the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics; and problems uncovered at the FBI's crime laboratory in 1997. Between 2000 and 2002, three cases caused the FBI additional headaches: the FBI's belated release of documents related to the Oklahoma City bombing; mishandling of the espionage investigation of Wen Ho Lee, nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; and the damage caused by the actions of long-term Russian and Soviet spy, FBI agent Robert Hanssen.

The FBI came under fire for its investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan, and a NUCLEAR WEAPONS specialist with the U.S. ENERGY DEPARTMENT at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Fired in March 1999 and arrested months later on 59 counts of mishandling classified nuclear data, he was never officially charged with espionage. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to one charge of downloading nuclear weapons design secrets to a nonsecure computer. The government dropped the remaining charges. Lee was sentenced to time served. He had been held nine months without bail in solitary confinement. A report by the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT called the FBI's investigation of the Lee case "deeply and fundamentally flawed," The New York Times reported.

In January 2001 the FBI was criticized for its handling of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation after FBI employees discovered that more than 1000 documents related to Timothy McVeigh's and Terry Nichols's trials for the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, had not been released. Once informed of the problem, FBI managers failed to promptly notify FBI headquarters or prosecutors. The blunder led to a one-month postponement of McVeigh's execution in May 2001. Nichols sought to have his convictions for MANSLAUGHTER and conspiracy overturned based upon the FBI's gaffe, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that nothing in the documents would have changed the outcome of Nichol's case.

The revelation of the espionage activities of the FBI's own agent, Robert Hanssen, was one of the most embarrassing incidents in the bureau's recent history. In 1979, about three years after he started working for the FBI, Hanssen began selling secrets to the Soviets. He continued spying off and on for 22 years until the time of his arrest. Some have called Hanssen the most damaging spy in U.S. history, turning over an estimated 26 diskettes and 6,000 pages of classified documents to the Soviet Union and Russia in exchange for cash and jewelry. He was sentenced in 2002 to life in prison. A subsequent probe initiated by Attorney General JOHN ASHCROFT showed serious deficiencies in the FBI's internal security programs.

In response to the SEPTEMBER 11TH ATTACKS and the terrorist threats against the United States, the FBI stepped up its counterterrorism measures to hunt down and capture suspected terrorists. The bureau works with the newly established HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT to protect U.S. citizens from the dangers of terrorist activities within the country's borders. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller called the fight against TERRORISM the bureau's top priority.


FBI site. Available online at <www.fbi.gov> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Jeffreys, Diarmuid. 1995. The Bureau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kessler, Ronald. 1993. The FBI. New York: Pocket Books.

Shapiro, Howard M. 1994. "The FBI in the 21st Century." Cornell International Law Journal. 28.

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