Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Bureau of Investigation was formed within the U.S. Department of Justice in response to President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for a special agency to investigate land grabs in the western United States and the growth of trusts in the East.

Summary of Event

During the nineteenth century, investigations involving violations of law that affected the U.S. government were largely more political than professional. These investigations were typically adjudicated by the Department of Justice, which was headed by the U.S. attorney general. The Justice Department employed well-trained Secret Service personnel to conduct investigations, but this process had obvious drawbacks. Employing such operatives was very expensive, so economic considerations sometimes thwarted investigations that needed to be conducted more fully. Furthermore, members of the Secret Service reported directly to the director of the Secret Service rather than to the Department of Justice and the attorney general. Federal Bureau of Investigation Bureau of Investigation, U.S. [kw]Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation (July 26, 1908) [kw]Investigation Begins Operation, Bureau of (July 26, 1908) Federal Bureau of Investigation Bureau of Investigation, U.S. [g]United States;July 26, 1908: Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation[02180] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 26, 1908: Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation[02180] [c]Crime and scandal;July 26, 1908: Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation[02180] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 26, 1908: Bureau of Investigation Begins Operation[02180] Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Bureau of Investigation Bonaparte, Charles Joseph Wickersham, George Woodward Taft, William Howard Finch, Stanley W. Bielaski, A. Bruce Stone, Harlan Fiske Hoover, J. Edgar

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley. Roosevelt, at that time the youngest person ever to serve as president, believed in a strong and active executive branch of government. Throughout his term of office, he focused on environmental conservation, an issue that meant a great deal to him. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Charles Joseph Bonaparte to the position of attorney general; Bonaparte shared the administration’s progressive, reformist spirit. Bonaparte wanted complete control of the investigations carried out on his watch, so he supported Congress’s passage, on May 27, 1908, of a law that prohibited the Department of Justice from hiring Secret Service personnel to carry out the kinds of investigations previously conducted by the Secret Service. This paved the way for the founding of an agency within the Department of Justice specifically designed to investigate federal crimes.

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After the establishment of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI), some federal violations continued to be investigated by the agencies most directly affected by them. Infringement of postal regulations, for example, fell under the purview of postal authorities. Customs violations and counterfeiting, although federal infractions, were investigated by the Department of the Treasury. Local violations, which occurred much more frequently than federal violations, generally came under the jurisdictions of state or local enforcement agencies, although in some cases federal agents assisted them.

Roosevelt, who strove to provide equal service to his full constituency—laborers, blue-collar and white-collar workers, and businesspeople alike—was disturbed by the incursions big business was making into American society. He called for stricter government regulation of business and set out to abolish trusts, or at least to restrict their activities substantially. To the dismay of the business world, he initiated legal action against the powerful Northern Securities Company. At the same time, Roosevelt was strenuously working for more governmental control of public lands, which were being shamelessly exploited by oil and mining interests. He urged Congress to put the good of the public ahead of private and highly profitable business interests.

During his term in office, Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks in the United States, adding five parks to those already in existence, and designated fifty-one areas as wildlife refuges. Roosevelt’s solution to the problem of corporate greed despoiling much of the West was to declare large wilderness areas in public lands. His interests in conservation and in controlling trusts led him to establish the Bureau of Investigation. To do so, Roosevelt called upon his attorney general, Bonaparte, to create an organization that would focus on thwarting the illegal land grabbing occurring in the West and on controlling the development of trusts within the business communities in the East.

Bonaparte responded to Roosevelt’s mandate by forming an agency staffed by thirty-four specialized agents who were authorized to deal with the problems the president had identified. This small group, which grew into the Bureau of Investigation, began operations on July 26, 1908. The initial staff of thirty-four was made up mostly of men who were chosen based on the experience they had gained working in the Department of Justice. They were exceptional investigators who had not been required to present any specific academic credentials but who had proven themselves in the field. Later, when Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone appointed J. Edgar Hoover director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, strict rules were established regarding an agent’s qualifications. These rules, however, were not in effect during the bureau’s first decades.

Initially, many members of the U.S. Congress had serious concerns about establishing this new agency, identified as the “special-agent force,” within the Department of Justice. They feared that the executive branch of the federal government was establishing a secret police force that might eventually infringe on citizens’ individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees.

Nevertheless, by passing the 1910 White-Slave Traffic Act White-Slave Traffic Act (1910)[White Slave Traffic Act] (also called the Mann Act), Mann Act (1910) Congress gave this cadre of special investigative personnel (which by 1909 had grown to sixty-four agents and nine support staff) much more power than it had at its inception. The Mann Act prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes, making such activities infractions of federal rather than state or local laws. Prostitution was usually viewed as a local matter, but the transportation of women from state to state for immoral purposes became a federal offense.

The agency operated without an official name until 1909, when Bonaparte’s successor, George Woodward Wickersham, who was appointed by President William Howard Taft, named the agency the Bureau of Investigation. Its first chief was Stanley W. Finch, who served for four years and was succeeded by A. Bruce Bielaski, who served for seven years. During the second and third decades of the twentieth century, when mob activity and the illegalities associated with Prohibition swept the nation, the FBI increased in size and gained considerable power. During World War I, the FBI was charged with the enforcement of the Selective Service Act and with investigating and prosecuting violations of the Espionage Act. Its scope was again broadened in 1919, when enforcement of the Interstate Transportation of Stolen Motor Vehicles Act fell to the bureau.

Significance

The establishment of a special bureau to investigate and prosecute specific legal violations became essential as American society grew increasingly complex. Significant advances in communication and transportation facilitated the growth of criminal activities that were less localized than they had been during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Other circumstances, including the involvement of the United States in World War I and the enactment of Prohibition in 1919, led to situations that justified the establishment of an organized investigative agency of considerable scope.

The Bureau of Investigation, although effective, was somewhat disorganized until Attorney General Stone appointed J. Edgar Hoover director of the agency in 1924. During Hoover’s tenure, which lasted until his death in 1972, he reorganized the agency and sharpened its focus, setting high employment standards for agents and establishing the FBI Laboratory and the Identification Division. Federal Bureau of Investigation Bureau of Investigation, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, David. Hard Evidence: How Detectives Inside the FBI’s Sci-Crime Lab Have Helped Solve America’s Toughest Cases. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. An intriguing inside look at the methods used by one of the agency’s most important divisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. A thorough account and exposé of Hoover’s long tenure as director of the FBI. A well-documented study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">January, Brendan. The FBI. New York: Franklin Watts, 2002. Brief volume provides accurate descriptions of the agency’s origins and subsequent growth and operation. Intended for young-adult readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, Ronald. The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. A comprehensive overview of the FBI from its beginnings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press, 1987. Presents the rise of Hoover within the context of his times and compares Hoover’s tenure as director with the FBI’s past.

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