Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): History, Role & Purpose

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  • 0:01 Purpose of the FBI
  • 2:15 History of the FBI
  • 4:50 Famous Cases
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is a national security organization. Unlike other organizations, the FBI has both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities. This lesson explains the roles and history of the FBI.

Purpose of the FBI

'Pretty Boy' Floyd, 'Baby Face' Nelson, 'Machine Gun' Kelly, the Unabomber, and Eric Rudolph. Who led the investigations against these infamous criminals? It was the FBI!

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is an intelligence-driven and threat-focused national security organization. The FBI is one of many agencies supervised by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The FBI is unique because it has both intelligence and law enforcement responsibilities. Most other police organizations are either intelligence-based or serve as traditional law enforcement agencies. Note that intelligence is the secret gathering of information for political, military, or police purposes.

Because of these dual responsibilities, the FBI serves several different roles. These include:

  • Protecting and defending the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats
  • Upholding and enforcing the criminal laws of the United States
  • Providing leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners

Generally speaking, the FBI gets involved when there are threats to national security or matters beyond the scope of local or state law enforcement agencies. The FBI investigates and enforces matters involving federal criminal law.

For example, the FBI is investigating the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri. Many believe the shooting may have been racially motivated. If so, the incident involves civil rights violations. The FBI is responsible for investigating crimes involving civil rights violations, so their federal investigation will be conducted alongside the St. Louis County police department's own investigation of the incident.

History of the FBI

The FBI may be our most famous law enforcement agency and is certainly one of the oldest. The FBI was created in 1908, under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. It was pieced together from former detectives and Secret Service men in order to form the Justice Department's first investigative agency. Though it went by other names in the meantime, the group wasn't known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935.

By 1917, the FBI had more than 600 employees and was assisting in World War I espionage and sabotage investigations. The FBI's most famous director, J. Edgar Hoover, was appointed in 1924. He immediately instituted strict criteria and training standards for potential FBI agents. This brought credibility to the still-new agency. Hoover is also well known for establishing the FBI's Identification Division in the early 1920s, which was the first national system to track criminals through fingerprints.

The 1930s brought higher crime rates, but Hoover responded accordingly. For example, the FBI began issuing its famous 'Most Wanted' bulletins and established a novel research laboratory to contribute to its forensic expertise. The agency grew to nearly 2,000 employees during this time and became widely known as the nation's premier law enforcement agency.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s allowed the use of federal law to prosecute civil rights violations. This meant the FBI became closely involved in these investigations, including the murder of Medgar Evers. The agency grew to over 16,000 employees during this time.

Hoover's tenure lasted until his death in 1972. More recently, the FBI is known for leading investigations involving organized crime, public corruption, cybercrime, and terrorism. Over 35,000 people work for the FBI, including more than 13,000 special agents and nearly 22,000 professional staff.

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