The FBI investigates possible violations of federal law for the Department of Justice and conducts intelligence operations within the executive branch of the U.S. government. With the broadest authority of all federal law enforcement agencies, the FBI protects American citizens against terrorist activity and foreign espionage as well as enforces federal criminal law. FBI agents also coordinate and provide advice and leadership to other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
Creation of the FBI
During the progressive era of the early 1900s, the federal government expanded to control and regulate many aspects of society that previously had been dealt with solely on a state or local level. Advances in technology and transportation created a need for law enforcement that extended beyond state lines. Encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, Attorney General Charles Bonaparte created a force of special agents to assist the DOJ in investigating violations of federal law. At that time, there weren't very many federal crimes. As the force grew, it took on more responsibilities in intelligence gathering and national security as well as criminal investigation.
Evolving Focus and Expanding Function
The growth of technology increased the need for agents with broad investigative authority. The FBI initially focused on federal crimes, including antitrust violations and white-collar and organized crime. However, because the CIA doesn't have the authority to investigate the activities of U.S. citizens, the FBI has taken on domestic intelligence functions. Beginning in World War I, the FBI investigated and brought to justice enemy espionage rings operating with American citizens on U.S. soil. With both law enforcement and intelligence tools, the FBI has the ability to act in both roles to prevent or disrupt events that threaten national security.
Bureau Structure and Organization
More than 35,000 employees work in the modern FBI, led by a director who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Directors may only serve a maximum of 10 years. The FBI contains five separate branches, each led by an executive assistant director: the national security, criminal cyber, science and technology, information and technology and human resources branches. Aside from the FBI's headquarters in Washington, D.C., there are more than 400 offices nationwide with employees who coordinate investigative efforts as well as work with state and local law enforcement on various cases. FBI agents collect information and give it to U.S. attorneys or other DOJ officials who decide whether to prosecute based on the evidence gathered.
Counterterrorism and Counterintelligence
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, domestic and international counterterrorism investigation has been a major focus of the FBI. To that end, the National Security Branch of the FBI was created in 2005. The NSB's goal is to investigate potential terrorist and foreign intelligence groups operating on U.S. soil and thwart plans that constitute threats to national security. These efforts are aided by provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that removed barriers preventing intelligence and law enforcement agencies from easily sharing information. FBI agents also provide leadership and guidance to local law enforcement agencies so they can more effectively investigate and prevent acts of terrorism.
- FBI: Frequently Asked Questions
- FBI: A Brief History of the FBI
- The United States Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Homeland Security Digital Library: Federal Bureau of Investigation: National Security Branch Overview
- International Spy Museum: Educator Spy Guide: U.S. and World Governments
- Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images