For more than seven decades, the FBI has stationed special agents and other personnel overseas to help protect Americans back home by building relationships with principal law enforcement, intelligence, and security services around the globe that help ensure a prompt and continuous exchange of information.
Today, we have 63 legal attaché offices—commonly known as legats—and more than two dozen smaller sub-offices in key cities around the globe, providing coverage for more than 180 countries, territories, and islands. Each office is established through mutual agreement with the host country and is situated in the U.S. embassy or consulate in that nation.
Our legal attaché program is managed by the International Operations Division at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This office keeps in close contact with other federal agencies, Interpol, foreign police and security officers in Washington, and national and international law enforcement associations. International liaison and information sharing are conducted in accordance with executive orders, laws, treaties, Attorney General Guidelines, FBI policies, and interagency agreements.
The foundation of the FBI’s international program is the International Operations Division and the legal attaché, or “legat,” each of whom is the Director’s personal representative in the foreign country in which he/she resides or for which he/she has regional responsibilities. FBI personnel abroad serve under the authority of the Department of State, chief of mission at United States embassies, at the pleasure of ambassadors and host country governments. Their core mission is to establish and maintain liaison with principal law enforcement and security services in designated foreign countries. This liaison enables the FBI to effectively and expeditiously conduct its responsibilities in combating international terrorism, organized crime, cyber crime, and general criminal matters. In particular, legat liaison activities are essential to the successful fulfillment overseas of the FBI’s lead federal law enforcement mission to prevent terrorist attacks against citizens and interests of the United States. Liaison is carried out in accordance with executive orders, statutes, treaties, Attorney General Guidelines, FBI policies, and interagency agreements. The legal attaché program provides for a prompt and continuous exchange of information with foreign law enforcement and security agencies and coordination with U.S. federal law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction over the matters under investigation. Our foreign-based personnel also assist foreign agencies with requests for investigative assistance in the U.S. to encourage reciprocal assistance in counterterrorism, criminal, and other investigative matters.
In addition to the Legat program, the FBI’s international law enforcement activities focus on one other key element—international training. Through international training, the FBI provides foreign law enforcement officers with skills in both basic and advanced investigative techniques and principles that promote cooperation and aid in the collection of evidence. Training allows the FBI to demonstrate major crime scene, counterterrorism, and other investigative techniques, while establishing better working relationships, thus strengthening cooperation among law enforcement personnel worldwide. Funded by the Department of State or Department of Defense, significant training programs include the International Law Enforcement Academies in Budapest, Hungary; Bangkok, Thailand; and Gaborone, Botswana; and San Salvador, El Salvador, as well as bilateral training programs targeting anti-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist financing. The FBI also participates in Bilateral Working Groups and several additional counterterrorism training programs in the Middle East.
The FBI’s legal attaché program was developed to pursue international aspects of the FBI’s investigative mandates through established liaison with principal law enforcement and security services in foreign countries and to provide a prompt and continuous exchange of information with these partners. The FBI currently has 60 fully operational legat offices and 15 sub-offices, with more than 250 agents and support personnel stationed around the world. The growth of transnational crime caused by the explosion in computer and telecommunications technology, the liberalization of immigration policies, and the increased ease of international travel has made it necessary for the U.S. to cooperate with countries around the world concerning security issues. The FBI’s role in international investigations has expanded due to the authority granted by the Congressional application of extraterritorial jurisdiction.
As the FBI’s domestic investigative responsibilities become increasingly intertwined with international criminal and terrorist elements in other countries, the FBI must continually enhance its ability to conduct complex investigations and acquire evidence from abroad for criminal prosecutions in the United States. To do so requires close coordination with international partners and security services. Some of the FBI’s most important and visible investigations are multi-national in scope, placing greater demands on the FBI, especially in the field, as more case agents are faced with challenges in obtaining admissible evidence for domestic prosecutions.
The Role of the Legal Attaché
The FBI legal attaché works with the law enforcement and security agencies in their host country to coordinate investigations of interest to both countries. The role of legal attachés is primarily one of coordination, as they do not conduct foreign intelligence gathering or counterintelligence investigations. The rules for joint activities and information sharing are generally spelled out in formal agreements between the U.S. and the host nation.
Typical duties of a legal attaché include coordinating requests for FBI or host country assistance overseas; conducting investigations in coordination with the host government; sharing investigative leads and information; briefing embassy counterparts from other agencies, including law enforcement agencies, as appropriate, and ambassadors; managing country clearances; providing situation reports concerning cultural protocol; assessing political and security climates; and coordinating victim and humanitarian assistance.
Two FBI agents (left) investigate an attack on U.S. soldiers in Kuwait just prior to forces entering Iraq.