- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

From an anonymous band of accountants and lawyers tasked with halting the white-slavery trade, the FBI has emerged as the nation’s premier crime-fighting force, routinely taking on greater — and more visible — investigative responsibilities throughout its 100-year history, capturing the public imagination and becoming as synonymous with law enforcement as Scotland Yard.

It would have been nearly impossible to predict the bureau’s ascendancy during its early years.

The roots of the FBI lead to the descendant of an emperor. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte had no particular affection for his great uncle, Napoleon I, and secured his place in FBI history by an act of bureaucracy rather than aristocracy.

On July 26, 1908, Bonaparte issued a terse memo announcing the formation of a force of special agents who would carry out investigations for the Justice Department.

Bonaparte’s force of 34 special agents, under the direction of Chief Examiner Stanley W. Finch, didn’thave a name. The force wouldn’t be named the FBI for nearly 30 years.

• Visit TWT’s interactive special section on the force’s 100th anniversary, 100 Years of the FBI.

The special agents had wide jurisdiction but relatively few laws to enforce. They didn’t carry guns or even have arrest powers. They investigated white-collar crimes, such as land fraud and forced labor for debt payment, as well as treason and violations of the neutrality act, which included raising money in the United States for foreign revolutions.

“We always had that balance between criminal investigations and national security,” says FBI historian John F. Fox Jr.

Hoover and Hauptman

The scandals that crippled Warren G. Harding’s administration seeped into the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI.

The bureau was notorious for corruption and politically motivated investigations, such as the probes into senators who questioned the corrupt dealings of Harding’s Cabinet.

Harding died in office in 1923. Not long after Calvin Coolidge was sworn in, the attorney general and the director of the Bureau of Investigation were both fired.

Tasked with cleaning up the bureau, new Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone envisioned a highly professional agency that was apolitical and investigated only violations of federal law.

Stone’s choice to lead the agency: the bureau’s 29-year-old assistant director, John Edgar Hoover.

His choice was based, in part, on simple pragmatism. Mr. Hoover was from Washington, D.C., whose residents did not have the right to vote. As a result, Mr. Hoover didn’t belong to a political party, which played into Stone’s goal of keeping politics out of the bureau.

“It seems ironic, given some of the reputation he has,” Mr. Fox says of Mr. Hoover.

Mr. Hoover’s legacy is a complicated one. No other figure is more responsible for the FBI’s training, tactics and image. Yet revelations later in his life and after his death showed that Mr. Hoover frequently abused his authority and seemed at times to be more concerned with spying on perceived enemies and protecting the bureau’s reputation than with fighting crime.

In the early years, however, he made the FBI. In weeding out the incompetent and corrupt, he shrank the agency during his first five years from 441 agents and about 650 support personnel to 339 agents and fewer than 600 support personnel.

He also made significant additions, such as requiring stringent background investigations and training for agents, creating a national fingerprint database and assembling a burgeoning crime laboratory.

Mr. Hoover also was careful to cultivate - some would say manipulate - the press to help mythologize the FBI.

The bureau remained largely unknown until the 1932 kidnapping of the 20-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh, who had sailed to fame by flying solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.

The toddler was snatched from a second-floor nursery in his family’s New Jersey home on the night of March 1, 1932. The crime garnered a tremendous law enforcement response and became a media sensation.

The investigation initially was under the direction of New Jersey State Police. (Kidnapping was not a federal crime at the time.) About two months after the kidnapping, the baby’s body was found less than five miles from the Lindbergh house. The FBI, which still was known as the Bureau of Investigation, was named the lead investigative agency the next year.

A break in the case came in 1934, when a gas-station attendant wrote down the license-plate number of a man who paid him with a $10 gold-certificate bill, months after gold-certificate bills had been removed from circulation.

The $10 bill was among the marked bills included in a $50,000 ransom payment made shortly after the kidnapping. The license-plate number led authorities to Bruno Hauptman, a German carpenter who lived in the Bronx.

Agents not only found more marked ransom money in Hauptman’s home but also used tool-mark analysis to match Hauptman’s tools to a homemade ladder that had been used to climb into the nursery. The bureau also matched Hauptman’s handwriting to a ransom note.

Hauptman was convicted and sent to the electric chair.


During the Great Depression, the public’s imagination belonged to the gangsters.

Marauding outlaws swept through the Midwest, robbing banks and shooting police officers. With colorful names like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and near-legendary stories such as that of Bonnie and Clyde - and movies like 1931’s “The Public Enemy” glorifying their exploits - these criminals became folk heroes.

For the FBI, there was no such romanticism. On the morning of June 17, 1933, as lawmen were taking bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash to prison, three gunmen opened fire.

Killed in the shooting were FBI agent Ray Caffrey and three police officers as well as Nash, a victim of his would-be rescuers.

The shooting came to be known as the Kansas City Massacre and prompted Congress gave the bureau authority to carry weapons and make arrests.

The era’s most famous gangster, John Dillinger, was an Indiana native who jumped over bank tellers’ counters during robberies, escaped from jails touted as “escape proof” and became a national phenomenon.

In 1934, Dillinger and his gang killed 10 people, including lawmen, stole guns from police stations and showed a knack for breaking out of jail.

Mr. Hoover named Dillinger “Public Enemy No. 1” and instructed agents to take him dead or alive.

Acting on a tip from a Romanian madam who hoped to avoid deportation, FBI agents staked out the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where Dillinger, his girlfriend and the madam had gone to see a movie - a gangster film staring Cary Grant.

As they walked out of the theater, agents called to Dillinger. Instead of giving up, he reached for his gun and was shot dead.

Scores of people went to the Chicago morgue to see his body. Mr. Hoover kept a macabre token in his outer office for years: a plaster impression of Dillinger’s face taken after his death.

World War to Cold War

On June 13, 1942, a German submarine landed on the shores of Long Island, N.Y. Four Nazi saboteurs climbed out and hid their sub.

A Coast Guardsman patrolling the beach didn’t buy their story that they were fishermen. His suspicions were raised further when one of the men gave him $260 to pretend he never saw anything.

The men scurried off, but the Coast Guardsman told his supervisor. When they found explosives buried in the sand the next day, they called the FBI.

The investigation took an unexpected twist when one of the Nazi saboteurs, George Dasch, reported himself to the FBI. He told the agency about their plans and about another group of saboteurs who landed in Florida four days after his group arrived in New York.

It’s unclear why Dasch called the FBI. He suggested it was out of a greater loyalty to the United States, where he had lived for 20 years. Others suggest the Coast Guardsman had spooked him and, worrying that they would be caught anyway, he tried to get the best deal he could by cooperating.

The eight saboteurs were arrested within 10 days. The FBI recovered $174,588 of the $175,000 the saboteurs had been given. Along with the bribe to the Coast Guardsman, they had spent money only on basic accommodations.

The eight were tried in secret by military tribunals authorized by President Roosevelt. Six were executed; Dasch and another man were given long prison sentences.

According to the FBI, the Nazis never again attempted a sabotage mission, and no sabotage was committed against the U.S. during World War II.

By the end of the war, America had a new enemy - the communists.

For the better part of 50 years, the FBI would hunt Soviet spies and American traitors, some of whom worked in the highest levels of U.S. counterintelligence.

A pivotal case was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The New York couple were sent to the electric chair in 1953 after being convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to steal secrets of the U.S. atomic bomb. The Rosenbergs, who were communists, were convicted on the strength of testimony from Ethel’s brother, a young soldier who had been stationed where the bomb was developed at Los Alamos, N.M.

Doubts about the Rosenbergs’ guilt lingered for years. Though Ethel Rosenberg certainly was aware of her husband’s activities, the extent of her involvement in spying is still debatable.

There is no doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy, but his KGB handler has since said Rosenberg did not supply information about the atomic bomb but did offer designs for fuses that were key in making Soviet missiles.

There were no doubts about Rudolph Abel.

In 1953, a paperboy in Brooklyn noticed that a nickel he had received felt light. It split in two when he dropped it and revealed a tiny photograph inside.

The hollow nickel and the numerical code depicted in the photograph confounded the FBI.

Four years later, Soviet spy Reino Hayhanen told U.S. authorities he wanted to defect because, after having spent five years in America, he had been called back to Moscow and didn’t want to go.

Pledging to help the FBI, Hayhanen introduced the bureau to a world of hollowed coins, pens and screws that carried secret messages. He led agents to an Army sergeant who had worked for the Soviets and was later sentenced to five years’ hard labor.

He even helped decipher the message in the hollow nickel from years earlier: It had been meant for him as a welcome from his KGB contacts.

In the end, Hayhanen’s greatest contribution may have been leading the bureau to Abel, who ran spies while posing as the owner of a photography studio in Brooklyn.

Abel was tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison; after five years, he was released in a prisoner exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The exchange included U.S. pilot Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union.

Civil rights

During the 1960s, the FBI investigated some of the most notorious civil rights cases of the time. At the same time, however, mostly at the behest of Mr. Hoover, the FBI secretly violated the civil rights of others by spying on them.

One of the most significant cases investigated by the bureau during the time became known as Mississippi Burning. It occurred against the backdrop of the Freedom Summer, an effort to register black voters and show resistance to the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized the region.

Civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were arrested June 21, 1964, on speeding charges in Neshoba County, Miss. They were denied phone calls, released later and never heard from again.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked the FBI the next day to investigate. Agents found the workers’ burned-out car but didn’t find their bodies, which had been buried, until August.

Ultimately, seven of the 18 defendants brought to trial were convicted, though none of murder. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and KKK recruiter, was convicted of manslaughter for his role in helping organize the killings.

The public outrage in the immediate aftermath of the killings helped spur Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I must commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the work they have done in uncovering this dastardly act,” Martin Luther King said. “It renews again my faith in democracy.”

The FBI’s questionable, if not outright illegal, treatment of King was part of a secret program known as the Counter Intelligence Program, or Cointelpro.

The program’s ostensible purpose was to neutralize radical, dangerous groups, such as the KKK, Black Panthers and the Weathermen. Operatives infiltrated groups, gathered information about them through burglaries and illegal wiretaps and leaked embarrassing facts or rumors about targets.

These tactics soon spread to others who had no involvement in any criminal activity, such as King. The program seemed to become part of Mr. Hoover’s proclivity to collect data that could be used for blackmail.

The public didn’t learn about Cointelpro until 1971, when documents about the program were stolen from an FBI office in Pennsylvania. Mr. Hoover ended Cointelpro shortly thereafter, and the FBI has since acknowledged that many of the practices went too far.

A new era

In June 1972, five men with cameras, rubber gloves and connections to the CIA were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in the District - and the FBI would play a central role in the ensuing scandal.

A years-long probe by the FBI revealed a cover-up of the break-in that included the White House and members of the Committee for the Re-election of the President. It also revealed a pattern of break-ins, illegal wiretaps and sabotage carried out by people loyal to President Nixon.

In the end, it lead to Mr. Nixon’s resignation and the convictions of several high-ranking officials, including the attorney general and the president’s chief of staff.

The bureau wasn’t immune from the fallout. Acting Director L. Patrick Gray resigned after revelations he had passed FBI reports on the case to White House counsel John Dean, who was convicted later for his role in the conspiracy, and burned documents given to him by the White House.

The FBI also played a role in keeping Watergate in the public consciousness. In 2005, retired Deputy Director W. Mark Felt admitted he was “Deep Throat,” the anonymous source who leaked information about the investigation to reporters.

While Mr. Hoover made an indelible impact on the FBI, the bureau saw many changes in the years after his death in 1972, such as the rise of a world-class training center in Quantico, Va.; the development of profiling serial killers and other criminals; and more women and minorities working as special agents.

The bureau also changed the type of cases it made, especially against organized crime. Mr. Hoover had long denied the existence of a cohesive crime syndicate and had favored quick arrests over long-term investigations.

However, the passage of the Federal Wiretap Act in 1968, which allowed law enforcement to record phone calls in some cases, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), passed in 1970 and aimed at the mob, gave the bureau new tools to target organized crime.

This helped the FBI attack organized crime’s stranglehold on labor unions and take down mob bosses such as John Gotti.

Yet the new tools couldn’t replace the value of informants and undercover agents, the most famous of whom was Joe Pistone.

For six years beginning in 1976, Mr. Pistone posed as Donnie Brasco, a small-time hood who ingratiated himself to the Bonanno crime family, one of the five in New York.

Mr. Pistone did such a convincing job that family leader Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano wanted to make Mr. Pistone a full member. The FBI had to end Mr. Pistone’s assignment when Napolitano ordered him to kill a rival.

Mr. Pistone’s undercover work ultimately led to the convictions of more than 100 people. It also led to the death of Napolitano, who was killed for letting Mr. Pistone infiltrate the family.


In the months and years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI’s biggest concern has been terrorism.

Still working to improve its counterterrorism work and become a world-class intelligence agency, the FBI has had to confront its mistakes made before the attacks and ongoing criticism that its efforts infringe on civil liberties.

Extremists - foreign and homegrown - have been the focus of much of the bureau’s work over the past 20 years.

The first attack on U.S. soil by terrorists from the Middle East came Feb. 26, 1993. A van packed with explosives in a parking garage under the World Trade Center in New York City killed six people and left a crater nearly 100 feet deep. The attack’s architect later told the FBI the goal had been to destroy one tower, with debris toppling the second.

A sprawling investigation quickly led agents first to arrest four men in New York who had taken part in the bombing. Months later, the FBI and New York City police caught a group of Muslim extremists as they mixed explosives in a garage.

That group planned to bomb the United Nations building, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the federal building that contains the FBI’s New York field office.

In 1995, two years after the attack, the probe led to Pakistan, where authorities arrested the driver of the van and the mastermind of the attack, Ramzi Yousef, nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attack.

On April 19, 1995, an Army veteran who had grown to hate the U.S. government after tragedies at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, drove a rented truck packed with homemade explosives to the federal building in Oklahoma City.

When the bomb detonated, a third of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was flattened, 168 people were killed, and Timothy McVeigh became the worst domestic terrorist in U.S. history.

The day after the attack, FBI agents sifting through the rubble found an important clue: the rear axle of the rented Ryder truck. The vehicle information number on it led agents to a body shop in Kansas, where employees helped create a composite sketch of the man who had rented the truck. The sketch subject was recognized quickly as McVeigh, who had been arrested about 1 1/2 hours after the bombing by an Oklahoma state trooper who had noticed that McVeigh’s car had no license plate.

McVeigh was convicted of the bombing and executed three months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

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