Americans have had a longstanding fascination with the FBI. The bureau has been the subject of numerous television shows and movies: The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Silence of the Lambs, to name a few. Recently, however, amid FBI Director James Comey firing, everyone is paying more attention to the bureau than ever.
So, you may know a bit about the current state of the FBI, but how much do you know about its history? Here’s a quick look at the directors and the controversies, both past and present.
Origins of the FBI
The FBI falls under the purview of the Department of Justice, which is a federal executive department of the United States government responsible for enforcing the law. The Grant Administration formed the Department of Justice in 1870, and upon its creation, it worked diligently to prosecute members of Ku Klux Klan.
The Origins of the FBI date back to 1896, when the National Bureau of Criminal Identification (NBCI) was founded. The NBCI’s mission was to identify criminal elements and share that information with law enforcement. It wasn’t until 1908, however, when U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte ordered federal investigators to report to Chief Examiner Stanley W. Finch that we had the first iteration of the FBI. A year later, its named changed to the Bureau of Investigation.
By 1924, J. Edgar Hoover had taken over the Bureau of Investigation. In 1935, the bureau was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover remained at the helm and would continue to lead it for another 36 years.
The Hoover Years
During the 1930s, Hoover led the fight against organized crime, bringing down such notorious criminals has George “Machine Gun Kelly” and John Dillinger.
In the 1950s, Hoover shared information with the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy. Hoover, however, became disillusioned with McCarthy, and according to Jonh Meroney of SFGate, his “personal experience with McCarthy led him to doubt the senator’s claims and eventually realize that McCarthy’s approach had the potential to do incalculable damage to principled anti-communism.”
After the Red Scare of the 1950s, Hoover continued to accumulate hundreds of thousands of files on Americans whom he deemed subversive. Hoover collected files on Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Librace, and just about everybody in between.
Hoover’s opponents criticized him for his tactics, and Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon had all considered firing him, but they were reluctant because they were afraid he might damage their respective political careers. On May 2nd, 1972, as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, Hoover died of a heart attack in his home. Two days later, Nixon named the headquarters of the FBI after him, which was still under construction.
The Modern FBI
After Hoover, the FBI went through two acting directors, L. Patrick Gray and William D. Ruckelshaus, before President Ford appointed Clarence M. Kelley in 1973. In 1978, William Webster took the helm from 1978-1987. Next, President Reagan appointed William Sessions in 1987, and he served until 1993.
Sessions, a former federal judge appointed by president Ronald Reagan in 1987, took up the mantle to focus on white collar crimes. He served as director of the FBI in during two of the most controversial occurrences in the 1990s: The Confrontation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the Assault on the Branch Dividian Compound in Waco, Texas.
Although Sessions’ mission was to stop white collar crime, he may have committed more white collar crimes than he prevented. Investigators accused him of using FBI resources for personal trips and home renovations. The Clinton Administration pressured Sessions to resign for nearly six months. He refused, and President Bill Clinton called Sessions personally to fire him.
After Clinton fired Sessions, Louis Freeh served as Director from 1993-2001, after which time George W. Bush appointed Robert Mueller. In May 2010, Barack Obama asked Mueller to continue to direct the FBI for two more years, even though his ten year term was supposed to be up in 2011 (although the term for an FBI Director is 10 years, Mueller and Hoover are the only two to serve 10 years or more). James Comey replaced Mueller on September 4th, 2013.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have had issues with James Comey. Their disdain for Comey may have come from his assertion that “public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority. The threat – which involves the corruption of local, state, and federally elected, appointed, or contracted officials – strikes at the heart of government, eroding public confidence and undermining the strength of our democracy.”
On Octobter 28th, 2016, apparently in his pursuit of justice, he sent a letter to Congress stating that he had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the [Clinton] investigation,” referring to the ongoing investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as Secretary of State. According to Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, the letter most likely cost Clinton the election.
While the Democrats were no fans of Comey, neither was President Trump. Trump fired Comey on May 9th, 2017. There is widespread suspicion that Comey was fired for investigating the Trump Administration’s ties to Russia. While Comey is not the first FBI Director to be given the axe, he is the first FBI Director to be fired so abruptly. After his firing, Comey testified in a public hearing before congress that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was being investigated at the time of his firing.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is leading the investigation into the matter, and the entire country is holding its breath to see what will happen next.
The Future if the FBI
After Comey’s firing, President Trump nominated Christopher Wray, who served from 2003-2005 as Assistant Attorney General under George W. Bush. As Assistant Attorney General, Wray was in charge of the criminal division. He currently is a partner at the law firm King and Spalding.
Whether or not the Senate will confirm his nomination is uncertain. Either way, the entire Comey/Russia controversy seems destined to be the stuff of an HBO original movie.
Matthew Groner is a Staff Writer for Sporcle. He enjoys foraging for gourmet mushrooms and calculating the odds of the Kansas City Chiefs winning a Super Bowl in his lifetime.