Over the course of a century—during which we’ve been involved in just about every major event in U.S. history and had countless innovations and famous cases—it’s hard to pick just ten. But here, in chronological order, are our choices for the top ten moments in FBI history…
1) July 26, 1908 – The Bureau is Born
No surprise on this one. But what you may not know is that our origins were somewhat tentative and filled with political intrigue. By early 1908, Teddy Roosevelt’s Attorney General—Charles Bonaparte—was growing weary of borrowing investigators from other agencies for federal cases under his jurisdiction. When Congress outlawed that practice in May, he had no choice but to pull together his own corps of agents. On July 26, Bonaparte sent a memo to his department announcing this new “force of special agents.” It started small, with just 34 agents and no name. And it was considered something of an experiment by both Bonaparte and Congress. But over time the force started making a difference…and the rest is history.
2) May 10, 1924 – Hoover Takes the Helm
Appointed to clean up a scandal-plagued Bureau, 29-year-old Acting Director J. Edgar Hoover immediately began instituting a series of reforms that transformed the FBI into the professional law enforcement organization that it is today. Over the next decade, Hoover strengthened the organizational and hiring practices of the Bureau, created a central repository for criminal identification and criminal history records, instituted a technical laboratory (the forerunner of today’s FBI Lab), began gathering and reporting national crime stats, and fostered a rigorous training program for American and international law enforcement alike. Though often remembered more for controversies in his later years, Hoover played a vital role in lifting the overall capabilities and professionalism of the FBI and U.S. law enforcement.
3) June 17, 1933 – The Kansas City Massacre
It’s hard to imagine today, but for the Bureau’s first quarter-century agents weren’t allowed to make their own arrests, and they only carried weapons in limited cases. That began to change one shocking morning outside a train station in Kansas City, Missouri, when Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and other gangsters suddenly opened fire on a group of lawmen transporting an escaped con back to prison. Killed in the hail of bullets were two police officers, a police chief, and a Bureau special agent. The public was stunned by what became known as the “Kansas City Massacre,” and Congress responded within a year by authorizing special agents to carry guns, to make arrests, and to tackle a wider array of gangster crime, which has helped us protect the nation ever since.
In many ways, John Dillinger was the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters, the leader of a ruthless band of gun-slinging bank robbers and crooks who was able to charm the press and American people into believing he was a harmless Robin Hood. Dillinger’s fame and ability to elude the law were reaching disastrous levels when we joined the hunt for him in the winter of 1933/1934. Despite a few stumbles along the way, Bureau agents tracked Dillinger down on July 22 and shot him dead in the streets of Chicago as he reached for his gun. The successful investigation catapulted the largely-unknown agency to worldwide fame and was the beginning of the end of the lawless gangster years.
5) June 26, 1939 – Getting Ready for War
More than two years before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the FBI was already preparing to protect the nation from its wartime enemies. It started when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a secret order in June 1939 putting the FBI (and the Army and Navy to a lesser extent) in charge of homeland security, including espionage, sabotage, and subversion. In June 1940, we were also asked to collect foreign intelligence in Central and South America. Our ensuing “Special Intelligence Service,” or SIS—a little-known initiative even now—ended up producing a trove of intelligence and outing some 887 Axis spies. Though later dissolved with the creation of the CIA, the SIS laid the groundwork for our network of international offices, which are vital to our ability to combat global crime and terror today. And overall, our work before and during the war ensured that not a single act of enemy-directed sabotage was carried out on U.S. soil.
Intelligence was not new to the FBI; neither was cooperating with the Army. But in September 1947, these two things started to come together in a powerful way when Special Agent Wesley Reynolds was briefed on a top secret Army cryptanalytic program and brought decoded Soviet spy messages back to the Bureau. In the spring of 1948, Special Agent Robert Lamphere became interested in these messages and combined his expertise and the Bureau’s growing knowledge of Soviet espionage with the work of the Army’s brilliant cryptanalyst Meredith Gardner. Together, the two began to make sense of Soviet telegrams sent from the U.S. and other western countries during World War II. Soon they were on the trail of Soviet spies like Judith Coplon, Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and many others. Their work and that of their successors—a project now known as Venona—allowed the FBI and its partners to identify more than 100 Soviet agents, keep traitors from accessing crucial national secrets, and start moving more proactively against Soviet intelligence in the 1950s and beyond. When Venona was declassified in 1995, it led to a significant re-evaluation of Cold War history.
By the early 1960s the civil rights movement was starting to make headway in America, but the backlash from the KKK and others was growing. When three young men who had volunteered to help register African-American voters in Mississippi disappeared suddenly on June 21, 1964, President Johnson called on the FBI to investigate, and we did so rigorously. Within a short time, we found the young men’s burnt-out station wagon (thus the famous case name “MIBURN”), located their bodies, and gathered important evidence that led to indictments. Although it took a long time (decades, tragically) to secure a measure of justice in the courtroom, national outrage over the crime helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these laws—for the first time—put real teeth into the FBI’s ability to defend the rights and freedoms of all Americans. We’ve used them to great effect ever since.
8) October 15, 1970 – New Law of the Land
In the fall of 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly called “RICO,” as part of a larger bill. What a huge milestone it turned out to be. Finally, the FBI had the legal muscle to go after criminal enterprises like the Mafia the right way—investigating their entire organizations, leaders and all, instead of just individuals who had committed a crime. Thanks to this legislation and other new approaches (like using undercover agents and Title III wiretaps to gather evidence), we were soon working with our partners to dismantle entire mob families from the top down and putting a serious dent in the Mafia’s corrupting and violent ways. We’ve also used the law over the years to combat street gangs, drug rings, corruption activities, and even terrorist financing activities in this country.
During the early 1970s, especially after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, revelations began to surface about potential abuses in the intelligence community. In 1975, on the heels of Watergate and the changing political climate it engendered, Senator Frank Church opened a series of hearings unlike any before into domestic intelligence issues. Front and center was the FBI, which was sharply criticized for its investigation of Dr. Martin Luther King, its surveillance practices, and other concerns. In response, the Bureau accelerated its re-evaluation of its domestic security programs and worked with the Attorney General to craft guidelines governing domestic security operations. These changes established clearer parameters for FBI cases and made agents more respectful than ever of the need to protect constitutional rights.
A pair of FBI employees inside the Pentagon shortly after the 9/11 attacks
In one horrific morning, everything changed for America—and for the FBI. The attacks quickly became the most massive investigation in our history, with a quarter of all agents and support personnel directly involved. And even before the dust settled, we had a new overriding mission: to stop terrorists before they strike. The FBI had prevented dozens of terrorist plots before 9/11—including nearly 60 during the 1990s alone. But these attacks showed that our strategic capabilities had to improve—that we needed to be more forward-leaning, more predictive, a step ahead of the next germinating threat. What followed was one of the most far-reaching transformations in FBI history, as we strengthened our counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities in profound new ways. The result has been innumerable successes over the past seven years, from heading off developing plots here in the U.S. to helping take out key terrorist operatives overseas by sharing key intelligence and information.
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