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On This Day In History: The FBI Turns 99

On July 26, 1908 Attorney General Charles Bonaparte hired the first 34 FBI employees, 99 years later the Bureau employs over 30,000 people. To be honest, most of what I know about the FBI I learned from movies, so I went to Oxford Reference Online and found the entry excerpted below from A Dictionary of Contemporary World History. Love them, or hate them, the FBI’s goal is to protect the citizens of the United States and OUP wishes them a very happy birthday!


FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) (USA): The investigative branch of the US Department of Justice. Established by Attorney-General Charles J. Bonaparte in 1908, a nascent Bureau of Investigation was used against radicals and immigrants by Attorney-General Palmer during the Red Scare. It was reorganized in 1924, following systematic violations of the Constitutional Bill of Rights, and J. Edgar Hoover was appointed Director. In response to the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son, the Bureau was again reorganized in 1935 and became an independent agency, acquiring its present name. Hoover embarked on a much-publicized campaign against prominent mobsters, and used the publicity to build up the reputation of the Bureau. Hoover worked not only to further the efficiency of the FBI, but also to promote its independence and unaccountability. He treated the Bureau as his personal fiefdom, and used the files on prominent individuals, Congressmen, Senators, and Presidents accumulated during his time in office to blackmail and pressure his way through Washington.

The FBI was active in anti-Communist operations, beginning with President Roosevelt’s request in 1936 that it ‘survey’ Communist and Fascist organizations. In 1946 it launched an anti-Communist offensive through agents in corporate personnel departments and trade unions and its formidable publicity machine. Later, in the 1950s, the FBI was essential to McCarthyism and the prosecutions of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and many others. Hoover established the COINTELPRO program, which was aimed at political radicals and resulted in dozens of illegal wiretaps and break-ins. Ultimately, this gave Nixon the idea for the ‘plumbers’, the team of operatives who broke into the Watergate buildings. The FBI’s reputation began to fall in 1971, when the COINTELPRO was revealed.

Since Hoover’s death, efforts have concentrated on increasing the FBI’s public accountability, and improving anti-racketeering activities. Hoover’s immediate successor was never confirmed because of the Watergate scandal; he was succeeded by William Webster, who held the job until 1987. Subsequently, Director William Sessions was dismissed after allegations that he took financial advantage of his position, and he was replaced by Louis Freeh in 1993. Freeh increased the FBI’s activities abroad, which resulted in the indictment of the terrorists responsible for the 1996 bombing of a US military base in Saudi Arabia. However, the FBI was severely criticized for blunders in the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh (responsible for the Bombing). In 2001, one week before the September 11 attacks, Robert S. Mueller III became the new Director. With the attacks, the FBI was faced with new challenges, of solving what happened (and why the FBI did not prevent the attacks from happening), of establishing and bringing to justice those responsible, and of making sure no further terrorist attacks would occur. These responsibilities were complicated by a series of anthrax attacks, which presented yet a further, qualitatively new challenge to the FBI. A number of its functions were to be integrated into the Department of Homeland Security, whose creation George W. Bush announced as a consequence of the FBI’s perceived failures in the War on Terrorism.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill Fisher

    The excerpt needs a fix if it omits the phrase “Oklahoma City” in the parenthetical bit after “McVeigh.”

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