Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Mathieu Deflem
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Published in Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties: Revised and Expanded, edited by Kara E. Stooksbury, John M. Scheb II, and Otis H. Stephens, Jr. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017. Also available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2017. "Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)." Pp. 348-349 in Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties: Revised and Expanded, edited by Kara E. Stooksbury, John M. Scheb II, and Otis H. Stephens, Jr. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the primary law enforcement agency in the United States Department of Justice. The formation of the FBI dates back to the late 19th century when special investigators in the Justice Department were assigned to enforce federal criminal statutes. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt requested U.S. Congress to create a new law enforcement agency in the Justice Department. When Congress opposed, Roosevelt in 1908 created the Bureau of Investigation by executive order (the word Federal was added in 1935).

Initially, the Bureau’s jurisdiction included only a limited number of federal offenses that related to interstate commerce. Yet, the Bureau would rapidly rise to become the most important federal law enforcement organization in the United States, especially as the Bureau was assigned to enforce new federal criminal statutes, such as the 1912 Mann Act, prohibiting the interstate transportation of women for prostitution or other immoral purposes, and the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act of 1919.

By the early 1920s, the Bureau was still riddled with scandal and incompetence due to a lack of professionalism. In order to turn the Bureau into a more accountable and professional organization, J. Edgar Hoover was in 1924 appointed as the Bureau’s new Director, a position he would hold until his death in 1972. During his nearly five decades as FBI Director, Hoover was one of the most powerful public officials in the United States. Under his direction, the FBI became a modern law enforcement agency that acquired world fame. However, it was also rumored that politicians and other leaders feared Hoover because of the information that the FBI collected about them. Not until several years after Hoover's death, it was uncovered that the FBI under Hoover's direction had collected vast amounts of personal information about political leaders and community activists, among them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Hoover accused of having ties with the Communist Party.

The gangster era of the 1930s provided an important impetus for the Bureau’s public image as a top law enforcement organization. The Bureau’s involvement in some heavily publicized criminal cases captured the public’s imagination and garnered political support as well. The Bureau also became increasingly responsible for cross-border and international crimes, such as violations of immigration laws and the prostitution trade. In order to successfully accomplish its broadened functions, the FBI acquired additional personnel, an ever-growing budget, and advanced technological means, such as the Uniform Crime Reports, the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, and an elaborate fingerprint system.

The events surrounding World War II were a critical moment in the development of the FBI. In 1934, President Roosevelt had given a secret order for the Bureau to investigate the American Nazi movement, and shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the FBI was formally charged to investigate violations of neutrality laws as well as espionage, sabotage, and subversive activities. During the Second World War, the FBI would drastically expand its powers, as the Bureau’s budget and personnel increased more than fivefold.

After World War II, the FBI further solidified its position. The FBI became responsible for the enforcement of hundreds of federal criminal statutes, pertaining to such issues as gambling, racketeering, and civil rights violations. The Bureau was also very actively involved in government actions against the Communist threat in the United States during the 1950s and the violent excesses of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and 1970s. With its ever-broadening powers, FBI activities would occasionally also touch on legitimate forms of dissent, but the abuses of the FBI would not be exposed until several years after Hoover’s death. From then on and until today, the FBI’s activities in matters of domestic security and counterintelligence are often debated in terms of their potential to harm Constitutional rights.

The FBI is traditionally also heavily involved in international police work. In 1938, the FBI became the official U.S. representative in the International Criminal Police Commission, the organization today known as Interpol. In the late 1950s, the FBI left Interpol and from then on pursued a more independent international course. The Bureau became responsible for the enforcement of federal violations with international dimensions, such as extradition, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The FBI also maintains an extensive system of agents abroad, the so-called legal attach├ęs, and oversees training programs of foreign police.

Besides its usual federal duties, the FBI was from the late 1980s onwards turning to the rising crime problems in the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, when suddenly new domestic issues emerged. In 1992, the FBI was involved in a stand-off with a criminal suspect in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that left a woman, child, and law enforcement agent dead. Less than a year later, the FBI could not prevent the deaths of some 80 members of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect in Waco, Texas, whose compound burned down after a 51-day standoff. These events led to congressional inquiries about the FBI’s ability to respond to emergencies. During the 1990s, the FBI was further exposed to public criticisms because of mistakes that had been made in investigations involving the Bureau’s crime laboratory.

Although terrorism had gradually developed as a priority in the FBI throughout the 1990s, the tragic events of September 11, 2001 have launched in a new phase in the Bureau’s development. In the months following 9/11, the FBI assigned some 4,000 of its 11,500 special agents to counter-terrorist activities, and since June 2002, the FBI has been reformed as the leading counter-terrorism agency in the United States. Dating back to a system developed in the 1980s, the FBI oversees various Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the United States in collaboration with agents from local and state agencies. Independent from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI has also been given increased intelligence and investigative powers by the USA PATRIOT Act. The FBI budget request for fiscal year 2006 amounts to $5.7 billion to support 31,475 positions, of which 12,140 are special agents and 2,745 are intelligence analysts. Thus, as was the case during other momentous social disturbances, such as World War II and the Cold War, the events of 9/11 have brought about important changes for the FBI, the impact of which may last for a considerable time to come.

  • Cunningham, David. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and F.B.I. Counterintelligence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Deflem, Mathieu. Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Powers, Richard Gid. Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI. New York: Free Press, 2004.
  • Theoharis, Athan G. The FBI & American Democracy: A Brief Critical History. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004.
  • Ungar, Stanford J. 1976. FBI. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

See also my related papers on international policing and my book Policing World Society.