FBI New York History
Several weeks prior to July 26, 1908—when a special agent force that would ultimately become the FBI was officially created—I.C. Sauer was notified that he had been designated special agent in charge in New York City. Congress had recently ended the ability of the Department of Justice and other executive agencies to borrow investigators from the Treasury Department’s Secret Service, so Attorney General Charles Bonaparte began to reorganize the department, creating an experimental special agent force to answer the department’s investigative needs. Sauer was one of the first new agents hired for this force.
The new force grew slowly, but from the beginning, agents were assigned to New York and Chicago because of the great need for regular investigative support in those cities. According to an agent who worked in the early Bureau, the New York Field Office had a special agent in charge and about six to eight field agents by 1911. A number of special examiners, accountants, and antitrust agents soon made New York City their operating base. Between 1910 and 1913, Mann Act (anti-prostitution) investigations were significant, as were a wide variety of white-collar crime matters.
As World War I broke out in Europe, war-related investigations grew in importance, but the most significant violations—involving acts of sabotage—initially were not pursued by Bureau agents since there were no federal laws against such attacks, which were largely committed by German partisans. When the U.S. entered the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, and New York became the key focus of much of the Bureau’s counterintelligence work.
1920s and 1930s
William M. Offley, Special Agent in Charge, 1912-1919
Wall Street Bombing in 1920 (Library of Congress)
Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter
Following the war, domestic terrorism became a focus of the New York Field Office as it pursued anarchist bombers responsible for a mail bombing campaign in the spring of 1919, a more direct bombing attack in June of that year, and the September 16, 1920 bombing of the J.P. Morgan Building on Wall Street that killed dozens and injured more than 300 people. Although much excellent investigative work was done, the Department of Justice’s attempt to round up and deport alien anarchists—commonly known as the Palmer Raids—generated intense criticism of the attorney general and the Bureau due to the abuse of the civil rights of many detainees.
New York helped to develop another Bureau strength during the time period. Around 1918, the Bureau launched its first course of training for new agents in Chicago under Special Agent in Charge E.J. Brennan. The next year, Brennan was made special agent in charge of the New York Field Office, and the training program he developed followed him to New York City. Brennan was the chief, if not the only, lecturer in the school, and following his brief classroom instruction, new agents were assigned to tail experienced agents for several weeks to learn the ropes. This training was carried on in a more or less haphazard manner for a couple of years and re-instituted and formalized under Director Hoover in the late 1920s.
Throughout the 1920s and into the early years of the Great Depression, the New York Field Office pursued a large and wide-ranging case load. In a Bureau-wide reorganization, the office took over cases from the Albany, Buffalo, and Newark Divisions. In 1932, it played an important role in the Bureau’s first kidnapping case, helping to investigate the disappearance and murder of the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife from their home in New Jersey. New York agents provided assistance in the ransom hand-off, the arrest of Bruno Hauptmann (ultimately convicted of the crime), and other aspects of the case.
As early as 1933, New York agents sought specialized training in the use of firearms through the facilities of the New York Police Department (NYPD); this training was sought even before Congress authorized Bureau agents to carry firearms as federal law enforcement officials. By 1936, the New York Field Office had set up its own pistol range at the new federal courthouse in Foley Square, where the office had just relocated.
Although many gangsters of the day operated in the Midwest, New York had its share of major organized criminals. The New York Field Office investigated the mob activities of Louis Lepke Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro in the extortion investigation known as the Fur Dressers Case. Buchalter’s organization, Murder Inc., was also investigated for extortion and racketeering. In 1939, through noted commentator Walter Winchell, Buchalter turned himself in to FBI Director Hoover in New York.
1940s and 1950s
With World War II fast approaching in the late 1930s, counterintelligence investigations became more important, and the New York Field Office again played a significant role in the Bureau’s field cases. In 1938, New York investigators, namely Special Agent Leon Turrou, investigated a major German spy ring known as the Rumrich-Greibl Ring. The case was compromised from the beginning by the actions of other government agencies and the inexperience of our investigators, but the New York Field Office and the FBI learned some valuable lessons. Within two years, the office was running a double agent named Sebold against the Duquesne Spy Ring. When the operation was over, 33 German spies were captured, significantly compromising German intelligence operations against the U.S. months before America entered World War II.
The New York Field Office continued to be a major focus for FBI counterintelligence efforts throughout the war, supporting the Bureau’s Special Intelligence Service work in the Western Hemisphere, liaising with British intelligence through the British Security Coordination Office under William Stephenson, and pursuing many other investigations. New York agents also began investigating Soviet espionage, tracking dead letter drops in the city, and looking into the activities of Soviet diplomats, trade representatives at the Amtorg Office (a Soviet trade group that engaged in significant espionage as well), and others.
With the end of World War II and the threat from Axis intelligence, the counterintelligence focus shifted to the Soviets. With the defection of Elizabeth Bentley in the fall of 1945, New York agents found themselves investigating dozens of previously unknown espionage suspects. Bentley had traveled regularly from New York City to Washington, D.C. to gather stolen intelligence, so FBI offices in both cities were key to pursuing this case. With the deepening of relations between the FBI and the Army Signals Agency (later the National Security Agency) and the beginnings of a long-term project now called Venona, New York’s counterintelligence work moved from being reactive—chasing the past activities of suspected spies—to being more proactive. The office began tracking active spies like Judith Coplon and members of the Rosenberg Spy Ring and pursuing other actions to penetrate and disrupt Soviet espionage—from following leads provided by Venona to arresting the Soviet agent known as Rudolph Abel in 1958.
National security investigations, of course, weren’t the only cases pursued by New York agents during the first decades of the Cold War. In 1952, New York agents had to investigate the murder of one of their own—Special Agent Joseph Brock, who was gunned down by violent bank robber Gerhard Arthur Puff. Puff was found guilty of murder the following year. New York agents also tracked down the kidnapper and murderer of one-month-old Peter Weinberger—Angelo LaMarca—following a painstaking investigation that included the examination of two million handwriting samples.
1960s and 1970s
In November 1962, John F. Malone was appointed assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office. Malone served in that position until retiring in 1975, making him the longest-serving field division head in FBI history. Highlights of Malone’s tenure included investigations of: the early 1970s attacks on New York police and others by domestic terrorist groups like the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground; airplane hijackings; major Soviet, Chinese, and East Bloc spies operating in and around New York; and violent bank robbers as portrayed in the movie Dog Day Afternoon.
FBI agent conducting filmed surveillance of undercover operation in Duquesne Spy Ring case at double agent William Sebold's bogus office in Manhattan.
John F. Malone
When Malone retired, the FBI was undergoing significant change. On the one hand, it was greatly revamping and reducing its domestic security program, in which the New York Field Office played a significant role. As a result, the office scaled back its investigation of a wide range of subversive groups, concentrating on those like the Weather Underground and the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) that used violence and serious criminal activity as part of their operations. On the other hand, new legislative tools like the Title III wiretap authority and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 offered the Bureau new ways to attack organized criminal groups as a whole rather than piece-meal as it had in the past. These new approaches were pioneered in New York, leading to a series of major cases in the 1980s—including the Commission and Pizza Connection cases—that allowed the FBI to put the major New York mob leaders out of business. These cases were successful due the brave undercover work of agents like Joe Pistone, future Director Louis Freeh, and many others.
Throughout this period, New York personnel often struggled with the high cost of living in the city, especially in the stagflation period of the late 1970s. Many had to commute long distances to work in order to maintain affordable housing. These problems led to strong calls for pay reform to address the issue. Over the next decade, changes were made—including efforts to increase the pay of agents, especially those working counterintelligence—but it was the eventual implementation of locality pay that finally began to ameliorate the burden of working in a high-cost-of-living area like New York.
1980s and 1990s
Meanwhile, the New York Field Office continued to be on the cutting edge of FBI investigations. It pioneered, for example, the interagency task force approach to tackling crime problems. First, in 1979, the FBI/NYPD Joint Bank Robbery Task Force was established. By April of 1980, Bureau and NYPD counterterrorism investigators teamed up to form the nation’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, or JTTF, which soon became highly successful. NYPD and FBI personnel investigated a number of terrorism-related acts—from the deadly 1981 armored car robbery by one of the more violent domestic terrorist groups to a wide range of foreign terrorist-related matters, including the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the subsequent plot to bomb the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, all field offices that did not already have a JTTF were ordered to create one.
Counterintelligence remained central to the work of the New York Field Office. The presence of the United Nations and the significant economic, educational, and cultural activities of New York meant that the city was a key figure in the last years of the Cold War. In 1984, for instance, New York agents arrested Alice Michelson, an East German agent heading for Czechoslovakia. New York personnel were also actively involved in Operation Famish, a response to increasing Soviet espionage that culminated in 1985 in what the media called the “Year of the Spy.” Under a National Security Council project, the FBI also identified dozens of Soviet intelligence personnel—a significant number from the New York area—who the State Department declared persona non grata.
World Trade Center Bombing in 1993
Investigators search through debris on the USS Cole after the October 2000 bombing in Yemen.
During this time, the New York Field Office pursued a variety of criminal cases, including not only organized crime and violent crime—including Mafia figures like John Gotti—but also racketeering investigations like those involving Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and even political cases like the Wedtech scandal that led to the 1988 conviction of New York representative Robert Garcia on bribery and other corruption charges.
The New York Field Office continued to grow as well. Its Long Island Resident Agency, for example, was larger than 12 other FBI field offices at the time. By the 1990s, many of the investigations in New York were also beginning to have international dimensions. In the mid-1980s, Congress authorized the FBI to investigate crimes against U.S. persons, even if committed overseas. Under this authority, New York personnel pursued Ramzi Yousef to Pakistan, where FBI agents and Pakistani officials arrested him for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 1998, cooperation between the FBI and the Russian MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) led to the arrest of three New York residents for kidnapping a Khazak businessman. Also in 1998, the office played a lead role in the investigation of the Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And that same year, an investigation by the FBI-NYPD Joint Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force led to racketeering charges against six Russian organized crime members.
The need for such cross-jurisdictional cooperation increased sharply with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As soon as the first plane hit the World Trade Center building, the New York Field Office and the FBI as a whole were immersed in the largest single investigation in Bureau history.
Setting up temporary space in a parking garage on the west side of Manhattan, the office quickly began its work. It soon learned that in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings, the Bureau had lost New York Agent Leonard Hatton, who was working to evacuate people when the towers fell. In the ensuing months, FBI personnel from New York—together with a wide array of federal, state, and local partners—pursued thousands of leads and turned up vital information in the case. It also painstakingly sifted through the World Trade Center wreckage at the former Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, recovering evidence of the hijackers and their plot.
Like the rest of the Bureau, in the wake of the horrific attacks the New York Field Office placed greater emphasis than ever on stopping terrorists before they strike, and that meant greatly strengthening its intelligence capabilities. Those capabilities were increasingly applied not only to national security cases but also to criminal investigations. The office has continued to take down leaders of the major organized crime families, corrupt CEOs and other corporate executives, major gang leaders, and sophisticated cyber criminals.
The white-collar crime branch spearheaded major investigations of corporate and securities fraud, including the case that led to the conviction of Bernard Madoff on numerous fraud charges in connection with his massive Ponzi scheme; the conviction of WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers; the convictions of Tongsun Park and Bay Oil executive David Chalmers in the Oil-for-Food case; and the conviction of Martha Stewart on conspiracy and obstruction charges in connection with her disposition of Imclone stock.
Mafia suspect arrested in major takedown in 2011
New York Joint Terrorism Task Force members remove files in 2003 case
In the organized crime realm, since 9/11, the New York Field Office has arrested and convicted the leadership of all five La Cosa Nostra families twice over, and effectively put the “sixth” family, the DeCavalcante family, out of commission. In an unprecedented occurrence, Bonanno family boss Joe Massino became the highest-ranking mobster ever to become an FBI cooperator.
The violent crime branch continues to address the threat posed by gangs and other violent criminal enterprises, including the geographic spread of gangs to areas outside New York City. Major initiatives with law enforcement partners have made significant inroads on Long Island and in Westchester and Orange Counties.
The counterintelligence division, whose work, by necessity, remains mostly under the radar, continues to protect the nation from all forms of espionage. The recent arrests and deportations of a sleeper cell of Russian “illegals” represent just a fraction of the sophisticated counterespionage work being done by the New York Field Office in the post-Cold War era.
Counterterrorism remains the largest priority for the office. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force continues to aggressively investigate all forms of criminal activity, including the 2007 John F. Kennedy Airport bomb plot, the 2009 New York subway bomb plot, and the 2010 attempted Times Square bombing. The New York Field Office also has extraterritorial responsibilities to investigate criminal and terrorist attacks targeting U.S. citizens and interests abroad in cooperation with the host countries. In July 2010, an attack during the final match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup occurred in Kampala, Uganda. The FBI New York JTTF led the largest international response since the 2000 USS Cole attack, investigating several bombs that killed scores of people.
Today, the New York Field Office is composed of over 2,000 agents, support staff, and task force members. It is the largest field office in terms of staff, and its territory has a population of over 13 million.
As threats change and criminal activity becomes more sophisticated, the FBI’s New York Field Office will continue to adapt quickly yet judiciously to those who threaten America’s security. In combating traditional crimes and the newest threats, the New York Field Office will continue to proactively protect the nation as we work to advance our partnerships with law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world.