The architect of the FBI was Napoleon’s great-nephew, Charles Bonaparte
Recent reports have revealed that the FBI is looking for highly classified documents, some involving nuclear weapons. In his only public statement on the matter, Attorney General Merrick Garland last week defended FBI agents and federal prosecutors. “I will not remain silent when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said. “The men and women of the FBI and the Department of Justice are dedicated and patriotic public servants.”
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Before becoming Attorney General, Bonaparte had served as Secretary of the Navy in early 1906 when he became concerned about whether he was doing a good enough job. Roosevelt wrote his fellow Progressive Republican a teasing retort: “You are an asset! – and disclosed his intention to appoint Bonaparte as attorney general that year.
Bonaparte created the forerunner of the FBI because the Department of Justice did not have its own investigators when enforcing federal laws. As a wealthy Baltimore lawyer, he fought corruption as head of the National Civil Service Reform League. When Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte Secretary of the Navy, cartoonists quickly took notice of the 1805 crushing of Napoleon’s French naval fleet by the British in the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. A cartoon showed “the spirit of Napoleon” reading a telegram from Roosevelt, which declared: “I have appointed your great-nephew Secretary of the Navy”; Napoleon replied, “I hope he does better with the ships than I do.”
As attorney general, Bonaparte led Roosevelt’s campaign to break trust, dismantling giants such as the Standard Oil Company. He has personally argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court. The press gave him the nickname “Charlie the Crook Chaser”. But when it came to enforcing federal laws, he complained to Congress that the department had “no permanent detective force under its control.” Instead, he had to borrow Secret Service agents from the Treasury Department.
In May 1908, Congress banned the outside use of Secret Service investigators – a move that just happened. after two lawmakers were jailed following such investigations. Bonaparte saw his opening. He created a “Special Agent Force” of 31 investigators, including eight former Secret Service agents. He issued an order that ‘all matters relating to investigations within the Department’ will be referred to Chief Examiner Stanley Finch to decide ‘whether any member of the special constable force under his direction is available for work to be done”. The order was dated July 26, 1908, now considered the FBI’s birth date.
The standards for special agents resembled today’s requirements. According to Finch, the Washington Star later reported, the agents “had to be well-educated – preferably college graduates and members of the bar; they should not be unusual in appearance, so that they could pass unnoticed in a crowd. In a 1908 report to Congress, Bonaparte said that force was “absolutely indispensable” to the proper execution of the functions of the Department of Justice.
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When Bonaparte left office in March 1909 as William Howard Taft moved into the White House, he recommended that special agents be made an integral part of the Department of Justice. Taft agreed. Its attorney general, George Wickersham, quickly named the special force Bureau of Investigation, or BOI.
Officers initially focused on white-collar crime, such as property fraud and bankruptcy, antitrust violations, and “prostitute importation issues.” In 1910, the officers’ duties expanded to include enforcing the White Slave Act, also known as the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes “. Over the next few years, the strength of the BOI grew to over 300 officers.
In 1919, the agency hired its first African-American agent, James Wormley Jones. He was tasked with infiltrating subversive groups. In 1922, Alaska Davidson became the first female special agent. But two years later, the agency’s new chief, J. Edgar Hoover, 29, forced her to resign after her boss said he had “no particular job for a woman”.
During the 1930s, the agency was called the Division of Investigation (DOI) and gained a reputation for fighting organized crime. Legend has it that mobster George Kelly Barnes, known as Machine Gun Kelly, coined the name G-men, or government men, for officers when he shouted ‘Don’t shoot the G-men ! while being arrested.
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In 1935, Congress granted Hoover’s request to give the unit a new name, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On March 22, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill creating the new name and its motto “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity”.
Hoover served as director of the FBI until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. His long tenure has been tarnished by racial bigotry and abuses of civil liberties. President Richard M. Nixon, among others, suggested that Hoover kept his job because he had dirt on members of Congress and other powerful people. “‘He’s got files on everybody, damn it,'” Nixon said.
Today, the FBI has more than 30,000 agents and other professionals. The agency’s law enforcement mission ranges from white-collar crime to cybercrime and terrorism — and now executing search warrants at the home of a former president. That’s a far cry from the 31-man force that Charles Bonaparte created 114 years ago.
The former attorney general died at his estate in Bella Vista, Maryland in 1921 at the age of 70. In his obituary, the American from Baltimore noted that Bonaparte had a pet peeve about the death of his famous ancestor reputedly short staturewhich spawned the Napoleon complex, the theory that some short people try to compensate by being too aggressive.
“People who sought to flatter M. Bonaparte by telling him that he looked like Napoleon irritated him”, writes the newspaper, “because he knew he was taller”.
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again, the story behind today’s headlines,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis columns.