Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

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The history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), apart from its role in fighting crime, shows that its powers of surveillance of subversives and political dissidents has grown in response to real and supposed threats to national security. However, the FBI's success in providing domestic security has sometimes been marred by excessive use of its powers and violations of civil liberties. These violations, such as the "Enemies List" compiled at the request of President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, have occurred especially when driven by political purposes. Because of the vigilance required for protecting American citizens against attacks in an age of terrorism, the FBI's investigatory powers have once more been expanded. As in America's past wars, many have voiced warnings that civil liberties must not be sacrificed for security.

First created in 1908 as the investigative division of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Investigation was formally renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Until the mid-1930s it was a relatively minor federal agency. When established, the Bureau's mission was to investigate violations of federal statutes. By a 1924 order of Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, the bureau was barred from monitoring political activities. The succeeding crises of World War II and the Cold War, however, changed the role and powers of the FBI—captured statistically in the agency's unprecedented growth between 1936 and 1952. During this period, FBI appropriations increased by eighteen times (from $5,000,000 to $90,665,000) and FBI personnel multiplied tenfold (from 1,580 to 14,657). This explosive growth was not the result of additional federal laws expanding FBI law enforcement responsibilities. Instead, after 1936 FBI agents, under a secret oral directive of President Franklin Roosevelt, began to focus as well on the political and personal activities of suspected "subversives," such as Nazi and Communist sympathizers. The purpose of these "intelligence" investigations was to anticipate the actions and contain the influence of radical activists and organizations.

This shift was partly the by-product of popular and congressional concerns about foreign-directed espionage and sabotage and the FBI's publicized successes in apprehending first German (during World War II) and then Soviet (during the Cold War) spies. Between 1938 and 1941, FBI agents apprehended and ensured the convictions of two German spy rings, and in 1942 apprehended two four-man saboteur teams dropped off in Florida and Long Island by German subs. Then, in the early Cold War years, FBI agents succeeded in apprehending Communists or Communist sympathizers recruited as Soviet spies, notably former State Department employee Alger Hiss (1948–1949), Justice Department employee Judith Coplon (1949), and atomic bomb conspirators Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1950–1951).

Unknown at the time, FBI investigations had covertly expanded beyond law enforcement and instead sought by extra-legal means to contain suspected "subversives" not necessarily involved in espionage but in radical political activities. Beginning in 1946, FBI officials purposely disseminated derogatory personal and political information to favored reporters, members of Congress (including Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and key congressional committees (the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee). Their purpose was to discredit radical activists and promote a climate of obsessive anti-Communism. These dissemination practices were necessary because either the obtained information documented no violation of a federal statute or had been obtained illegally—through break-ins, microphones, wiretaps, or mail opening. FBI officials had authorized such illegal investigative techniques owing to the difficulty of learning through legal means whether radical or Stalinist activists might engage in espionage or could influence the popular culture.

To prevent the discovery of practices that involved "clearly illegal" techniques (FBI officials' phraseology) or the dissemination of derogatory information for purposes other than law enforcement, FBI officials devised a series of separate records procedures: Do Not File; June Mail; administrative pages; blue, pink, or informal memoranda; and blind memoranda. These undiscoverable practices enabled FBI officials to act independently. As a result, by the 1950s the FBI had evolved into a powerful, autonomous agency, no longer subject to strict over-sight by Congress, the courts, or even senior White House officials or the attorney general, and committed to containing radical activists by extra-legal means, such as the code-named COINTELPRO.

As the Cold War waned and concerns about civil liberties and privacy increased, the public took a more skeptical attitude toward national security and secrecy powers. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and then the Watergate scandal, Congress and the media began to scrutinize FBI operations more critically. Their ability to do so stemmed from the enactment in 1974 of a series of amendments to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and from the first intensive congressional investigation of FBI operations and procedures, conducted in 1975 by the so-called Church and Pike select intelligence committees, which publicized FBI abuses of power. FBI officials, however, did not abandon an intelligence role, nor were FBI investigations confined to uncovering violations of federal statutes. The public and Congress continued to assign a high priority to security interests and endorsed an approach whereby FBI agents were to anticipate internal security crimes, whether espionage or terrorism.


Donner, Frank. The Age of Surveillance. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton, 1991.

Poveda, Tony G. Lawlessness and Reform: The FBI in Transition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1990.

Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Theoharis, Athan, ed., with others. The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998.

Theoharis, Athan. Chasing Spies: How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence but Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Theoharis, Athan. The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Athan Theoharis

See also:CIA and Espionage; Civil Liberties, World War II; McCarthyism; 9–11; Nixon, Richard M.; Rosenberg, Hiss, Oppenheimer Cases; Terrorism, Fears of .

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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)