The FBI is a character in our culture. Movies, television and books call on the FBI to be either the good guys or the bad guys depending on the story. But where does the story of the FBI start? I was surprised to find recently from a news article that the FBI was formed at the tail end of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1908.
Before the FBI was formed, the Justice Department routinely drew on the Secret Service, under the Department of the Treasury, when investigative resources were needed. In 1908, Roosevelt used intelligence gathered by Secret Service agents to investigate Senator Benjamin Tillman’s land deals in Oregon. Congress, increasingly uncomfortable with Roosevelt’s broadening of executive power, responded by prohibiting the Justice Department from “borrowing” Secret Service agents for criminal investigations any longer. Charles J. Bonaparte, Roosevelt’s Attorney General, then urged the president to create a “special detective force” within the Department of Justice specifically for criminal investigation. Such a force was created under a “Chief Examiner” on July 26, 1908, via memorandum using miscellaneous funds. In a letter on January 14, 1909, shortly before Roosevelt left office, Bonaparte wrote a lengthy letter to the President once again asserting the need to fund such a detective force permanently, especially with the growth of responsibilities falling onto the Justice department.
One might wonder at this point why Congress didn’t fight the establishment of the FBI as they had the use of the Secret Service. Kathleen Dalton makes the observation that Roosevelt held the high ground in that battle. It wouldn’t do to let it seem as if Congress was worried about what federal investigations might find out about them. In an era of muckraking and progressive reform, creating a police force that was able to police the very people who created it would have been a popular idea.
The new detective force was named “the Bureau of Investigation” by Bonaparte’s successor. Its first official “case” was in 1910 when the Bureau was tasked with preparing to enforce the Mann Act, or the “White Slave Traffic Act.” It was not until 1935, under J. Edgar Hoover, that the department came to be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Image: Letter from Charles Bonaparte to Theodore Roosevelt, January 14, 1909. From the Library of Congress Manuscript division
Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
“Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI History 1908-1910,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed March 14, 2011, http://www2.fbi.gov/libref/historic/history/origins.htm.
Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991).