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The FBI Turns 100

On Saturday, [7/26/08], the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation will mark its 100th anniversary. Since its birth in 1908, the FBI has grown from a small cadre of 34 investigators to a mammoth agency of about 13,000 special agents backed by some 23,000 support personnel.

The FBI is more than just a law enforcement agency. Since the days of pursuing infamous fugitives like Bonnie and Clyde to hunting extraterrestrial beings on TV's fictional show "The X-Files," the FBI and its agents have been part of American popular culture.

This was no accident. The Bureau's place in popular culture was cultivated by J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI with an iron hand for nearly half of its existence.

Building the Bureau

The Bureau of Investigation was founded in 1908. But it was an obscure agency mired in political corruption until Hoover, then only 26 years old, was appointed to head it.

FBI historian John Fox says Hoover set out to clean house.

"What Hoover did was, he really went wholeheartedly into reforming the Bureau and into making law enforcement in the federal government a profession rather than a political position," says Fox. "He purged the rolls of the political hacks. He set very strict standards on how investigations were to be done, how the Bureau was run. And he strove to protect it from political influence."

The word "federal" was added to the FBI's name in 1935 when the Bureau was involved in high-profile criminal investigations, such as the kidnapping of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby, and the pursuit of gangsters like John Dillinger.

Historian John Fox says much of the legend of the FBI is rooted in that era.

"It centered around that 'G-Man' [i.e., government man] image that developed in the 1930s. And, yes, it became a very important part of how we looked at ourselves," says Fox.

Building an Image

Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI developed a huge reputation for forensic criminal investigations, and its crime lab was considered second to none. The FBI also had a longtime role in national security. It hunted Nazi spies and engaged in espionage in South America during World War II. By the 1950s, the Bureau was deeply engaged in counterespionage, and Hoover was denouncing what he saw as widespread communist infiltration and subversion in the United States.

Hoover was vigilant about how the FBI was portrayed in books and films, and on television. FBI historian John Fox says Hoover was deeply concerned with cultivating Bureau's squeaky-clean image.

"I don't know if obsessive is too strong. Certainly, it becomes what we would say was obsessive to the point of all the stories about 'Don't embarrass the Bureau' and some of those," says Fox. "And some of that's myth, and some of that is exaggeration. But there is a grain of truth in there."

Former agent Stan Pimentel, who joined the FBI five years before Hoover's death in 1972, says an agent who tarnished the Bureau's image could expect severe disciplinary action and perhaps transfer to what was often called "the FBI gulag" -- a small field office in the western state of Montana.

"Mr. Hoover had a reputation that if you screwed up -- if a job was not done correctly or if a problem evolved from that investigation you were doing or [you had] let's say a personal indiscretion -- the office that he would send you to would be Butte, Montana," says Pimentel. "He'd figure that's really out there and it's a long winter and that will teach you for having screwed up while you were living in Miami or San Francisco or whatever."

A Wrong Turn

The FBI's image took a hit in the 1970s when it was revealed that its agents not only had spied on American civil rights and antiwar groups, but also had tried to curb their activities in the 1960s and early 1970s under a counter intelligence program called "COINTELPRO". It also came to light that the Bureau had engaged in illegal break-ins -- "surreptitious entries" in FBI parlance -- to look for information about groups like the violent Weather Underground.

Ed Miller headed FBI domestic intelligence under J. Edgar Hoover. Now 85 years old, Miller says COINTELPRO was "broadly misunderstood". He says the break-ins were necessary and that, moreover, he had the authorization of then-acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray.

"Primarily what it was, was a disruption program. In other words, the Communist Party was very active and 80 percent of the COINTELPRO situations were conducted against the Communist Party USA," says Miller.

Gray denied authorizing the burglaries, and Miller and another FBI official, Mark Felt, were tried and convicted in 1980 for the illegal break-ins. Both men were later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

Looking Ahead

Stan Pimentel says the excesses that somewhat tarnished the image that J. Edgar Hoover so carefully cultivated have in the end made the FBI a better law enforcement agency.

"I think everything that has happened to the FBI, with the good and the bad, it has brought out the very best of the people in the FBI," says Pimentel. "It has made, I think, the organization -- that included myself -- a better person [and agency]. It made us more fully aware of the individual rights of individuals."

The FBI started as a law enforcement agency and it has never relinquished that role. But there have been shifts in emphasis during the Bureau's history. The emphasis now is on counterterrorism.

Mindful of civil liberties concerns, FBI agents refused to participate in the controversial aggressive interrogation techniques employed by some military and intelligence officers at the U.S. terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.