Federal Bureau of Investigation

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged with investigating all violations of federal laws except those assigned to some other federal agency. The FBI has jurisdiction over some 185 investigative matters, among them espionage, sabotage, and other subversive activities; kidnapping; extortion; bank robbery; interstate transportation of stolen property; civil-rights matters; interstate gambling violations; and fraud against the government. Created (1908) as the Bureau of Investigation, it originally conducted investigations only for the Justice Dept. After J. Edgar Hoover became (1924) director of the Bureau of Investigation, Congress gradually added one duty after another to the jurisdiction of the bureau and reorganized (1933) it with wider powers as the Division of Investigation in the Dept. of Justice. In 1935 it was designated the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI played an important role in raising the standards of local police units through its FBI Academy. Under Hoover's direction, it battled against such roving outlaws as John Dillinger and "Pretty Boy" Floyd as well as against the organized crime of the prohibition era. From World War I on, the agency also was active in intelligence work, investigating anarchists such as Emma Goldman and other political radicals, socialists, and Communists, Nazi saboteurs, and terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

During Hoover's final years as director (he served until his death in 1972), the bureau became highly controversial and was the frequent target of attack from a wide variety of liberal groups. During the Watergate affair it was revealed that the FBI had yielded to pressure from top White House officials, acting on behalf of President Richard M. Nixon, to halt their investigation of the Watergate break-in. The FBI subsequently cooperated with the White House "inquiry" into the break-in, which was actually attempting a cover-up, and FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray destroyed files belonging to one of the convicted Watergate conspirators, E. Howard Hunt. Gray resigned (Apr., 1973) after his role became public. In June, 1973, Clarence M. Kelley was named director. He was followed by William H. Webster (1978–87), William S. Sessions (1987–93), Louis J. Freeh (1993–2001), and Robert S. Mueller 3d (2001–).

See H. A. Overstreet, The FBI in Our Open Society (1969); W. W. Turner, Hoover's FBI (1970); R. O. Wright, ed., Whose FBI? (1974); J. T. Elliff, The Reform of the FBI Intelligence Activities (1979); F. M. Sorrentino, Ideological Warfare: The F.B.I.'s Path toward Power (1985); B. Burrough, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI: 1933–34 (2004); T. Weiner, Enemies: A History of the F.B.I. (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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