Federal Bureau of Investigation

Author:Athan Theoharis

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a division of the Department of Justice supervised by the attorney general. Although a CABINET officer since the 1790s, the ATTORNEY GENERAL did not oversee federal law enforcement and did not even head a federal department until congressional legislation of 1870 created the Department of Justice. The attorney general's responsibilities originally involved arguing major cases before the Supreme Court

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and advising the President on constitutional questions. The combination of the RECONSTRUCTION experience with the enactment of legislation regulating INTERSTATE COMMERCE in 1887 and preventing corporate mergers in 1890, however, led attorneys general to recognize the need for experienced investigators to secure evidence to prosecute violators of the ANTITRUST and interstate commerce laws. Accordingly, in July 1908 Attorney General Charles Bonaparte, by EXECUTIVE ORDER, created a special investigation division within the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Investigation, formally renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

Thereafter, the FBI's investigative reponsibilities increased as new laws expanded the definition of interstate commerce crime (the MANN ACT of 1910 and the Dyer Act of 1919) and law enforcement responsibilities (laws criminalizing kidnapping and bank robbing) and barred specified political activities that threatened the nation's internal security (the ESPIONAGE ACT of 1917 and the Smith Act of 1940). Yet this expansion raised no unique constitutional question both because it was legislatively mandated and because the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage and Smith Acts, which impinged on speech and association.

The FBI's activities have raised constitutional issues because of the Bureau's monitoring of "subversive" activities, particularly since 1936. In striking contrast even to the abusive PALMER RAIDS of 1920, which had been based on the 1918 Immigration Act's alien deportation provisions, after 1936 the FBI did not seek evidence to effect prosecution; and its "intelligence" investigations were authorized solely under secret executive directives (President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT'S oral directive of August 1936) or public executive orders (President HARRY S. TRUMAN'S March 1947 order establishing the Federal Employee Loyalty Program). In acquiring intelligence about dissident activities, the FBI's purposes...

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