Online FBI history is story of bureau, country

By Daniel Silliman


The FBI director prior to J. Edgar Hoover liked to write "true crime" stories for detective magazines, loosely based on his own exploits.

William J. Burns was only the bureau's director for a few years, and his writerly adventures are only a detail in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 100-year history, but, it also captures something important about the FBI. The bureau has a strong sense of its own story, its own image, and is willing to promote the work of the "G-Men."

From the very early days, the bureau was, in the words of FBI Historian John Fox, "an integral part of not just the political and legal cultures of this country, but also the pop culture."

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the FBI has a whole section of its website, www.fbi.gov/fbihistory.htm, dedicated to the story of the bureau from 1908 to the present.

The story shows how the investigative agency is intertwined with every part of the country's last 100 years. The project celebrates the G-Men, chronicles the changes, and shows the challenges in the ongoing balancing act between security and liberty.

With articles and artifacts, photos and famous cases, the site is an online museum. Fox, the official historian for the FBI since 2003, said there's always a significant public interest in the bureau and the centennial project is a way of giving the FBI story to the public.

"These are snapshots in American history that have really captured the imagination, and people are interested," Fox said. "Our image has had its ups and downs, but overall, our image has been positive. I think in the '70s there were some revelations of some things that have left our image a little tarnished. But since then, its been returning to some of those earlier levels, though not the mythic levels of the 1930s and 1940s -- but still there's some of that."

When the FBI started in 1908, it didn't even have a name. There were 34 agents working for Theodore Roosevelt's Attorney General, a bald, mustachioed man named Charles Bonaparte. The Attorney General just called the men his "force of special agents."

Sixteen years later, though, Hoover took over the bureau, the bureau began fighting the Prohibition and Depression-era gangsters, and the dramatic stories were irresistible.

"Hollywood really liked that image of the G-Man," Fox said. "Backing all that up, of course, was the bureau's success against the gangsters -- John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, "Machine Gun" Kelly -- and kind of the emergence of the FBI as this successful, investigative organization. That image really just carried through World War II and the early part of the Cold War."

The online history project particularly excels at displaying this golden age of the FBI. It offers write-ups of famous cases, which read like old, crackling radio dramas, accompanied by black-and-white mugshots, surveillance photos and pictures of the original artifacts. Many of the write-ups, though, include a link to the original FBI files, offering a really in-depth look at these famous cases.

A 10-paragraph account of the death of John Dillinger, considered "Public Enemy #1," includes the hand-drawn sketch agents used to plan the stakeout and a photo of the little gun Dillinger was carrying when he was killed. The account is linked to another write-up, which is three times longer. The longer write-up is linked to the original investigative file, all 156 pages available to download.

The available file on Al Capone, the Chicago-based rum-runner and organized crime leader, comes in at 2,397 pages.

The history project doesn't just stick to the well-known chapters of bureau history, however. The site includes information about anarchists bombing the Attorney General's home in 1919; four Nazi saboteurs in Florida in 1942; the $2.7 million "Great Brink's Robbery" in 1950; the racially-motivated bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963; the as yet unsolved airplane hijacking by a "Dan Cooper," in 1971; the investigation of 31 public officials in a sting operation called "ABSCAM," which led to high profile convictions in 1981; as well as recent cases still familiar from headlines.

"In the last 100 years," Fox said, "we've been involved in every major event in American history ... I think that the FBI is, in many ways, a reflection of the nation it serves. It really does hit so many of those high points, major national security crises, and closely held fears of major criminal violence. Looking at the FBI really does provide us with a snapshot of our nation in the last century."

Fox, as the bureau's official historian, said he has been particularly surprised to see how, despite all the changes in the country and the bureau, the same issues and themes are always present. "I am realizing how often the concerns and debates of the past are, in a sense, reprised in the present," Fox said. "They have to do with the basic foundation of what we do, balancing liberty and security ... The way the bureau gets judged is how we do at balancing those. That is the key to how people view us and judge us and, likewise, how we should see and judge ourselves."