Agency Spotlight—History of the FBI

Aug 8, 2017


Creation of the FBI

The Department of Justice was created in 1870 to enforce federal law and coordinate judicial policy. However, there were no permanent investigators on staff. Initially, they hired private detectives when there were federal crimes to investigate and later rented out investigators from other federal agencies. In the early 1900’s, the Attorney General was authorized to hire a few permanent investigators and the Office of the Chief Examiner was created to review financial transactions of the federal courts.

The National Bureau of Criminal Identity, founded in 1896, provided agencies with information identifying known criminals. Due to the assassination of President William McKinley and other crimes at the turn of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt instructed the Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte, to organize an autonomous investigative service. This new service would only report to the Attorney General.

Bonaparte reached out to other agencies, including the Secret Service, for personnel. In May 1908, Congress forbade this use of Treasury employees by the Judicial Department, citing fears that the new agency would serve as a secret police department. President Roosevelt urged Bonaparte and he moved to organize a formal Bureau of Investigation, having its own special agents.

In 1908, the Department of Justice hired 10 former Secret Service employees to join the Office of the Chief Examiner.

Created on July 26, 1908, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was initially known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI or BI). Its first task was visiting and making surveys at the houses of prostitution in preparation for enforcing the Mann Act—making it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for prostitution of debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”.

By March 1909, the force included 34 agents. The government used the bureau as a tool to investigate criminals who evaded prosecution by passing over state lines. Within a few years, the number of agents had grown to more than 300. Some in Congress, however, feared that its growing authority would lead to abuse of power.

Learn more about the branches of the FBI.

Hoover Becomes Director of the FBI

bureauWhen the United States entered World War I in 1917, the bureau investigated draft resisters, violators of the Espionage Act of 1917, and immigrants suspected of radicalism. During this time, J. Edgar Hoover—a lawyer and former librarian—joined the DOJ and within two years became the special assistant to the Attorney General.

Hoover was very anti-radical in his ideology and came to the forefront of federal law enforcement during the Red Scare I 1919-1920. He developed an index card system listing every radical leader, organization, and publication in the U.S. By 1921, he had amassed around 450,000 files. More than 10,000 suspected communists were also arrested during this time.

On May 10, 1924, Hoover became acting director of the Bureau of Investigation. During the 1920’s, he drastically restructured and expanded the BOI. The agency became an efficient crime fighting machine and had a centralized fingerprint file, crime lab, and agent training school established.

In the 1930’s, the BOI launched a battle against crime brought on by Prohibition. Many notorious gangsters met their ends while Hoover sat as director and the agency became highly regarded by Congress and the American people. In 1935, the Bureau of Investigation became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

During World War II, Hoover revived anti-espionage techniques developed earlier and domestic wiretaps and other electronic surveillance expanded drastically.


In 1956, Hoover initiated COINTELPRO, a secret counterintelligence program that initially targeted the U.S. communist party. It later expanded to infiltrate and disrupt any radical organization in America. During the 1960’s, COINTELPRO targeted the Ku Klux Klan and African American civil rights organizations and liberal anti-war organizations. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a target, enduring systemic harassment from the FBI.

With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the jurisdiction fell to local police departments until President Lyndon B. Johnson directed the FBI to take over. Congress passed a law in 1965 that clarified the responsibility for investigation of homicides of federal officials. Investigations of such deaths of federal officials, especially by homicide, would fall under FBI jurisdiction.

When Hoover entered service under his eighth president in 1969, the media, public, and Congress began thinking the FBI might be abusing its authority. For the first time in his career, Hoover endured widespread criticism.

Congress passed a law requiring Senate confirmation of future FBI directors and limiting their tenure to 10 years.

The FBI has not been without scandal since then. The Watergate Scandal revealed the FBI illegally protected President Richard Nixon from the investigation, and Congress investigated the FBI.

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