History of Legal Attachés

In 1940—a year before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor pushed the U.S. into World War II—President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that America needed more and better intelligence to understand the threats posed by the Axis powers.

The FBI was in charge of domestic intelligence, but there was no CIA at that time to handle overseas intelligence. Roosevelt decided to assign intelligence responsibilities for different parts of the globe to various agencies. The Bureau landed the area closest to home—the Western Hemisphere.

Strategically, it made sense—South and Central America were fast becoming staging grounds for the Nazis to send spies into the U.S. and hubs for relaying information back to Germany. In June 1940, the FBI responded to the president’s charge by setting up a Special Intelligence Service that deployed scores of undercover agents to ferret out Axis spy networks.

Inside the legal attaché office in Paris circa 1946.

Inside the legal attaché office in Paris in approximately 1946.

Around this time, the FBI also realized that it needed to establish official liaison with the many countries it was working with across the world to coordinate international leads arising from the Bureau’s work and to exchange information with the police and intelligence services of those countries. In 1940, the FBI established its first international office in Mexico City to collaborate on a variety of criminal matters. By the end of 1942, special agents also had been assigned to U.S. embassies in Bogota, London, and Ottawa, and they were all carried on the Department of State’s diplomatic roster and given the title of “legal attaché” (or legat). The following year, a Liaison Section in the Security Division was established at FBI Headquarters to maintain contact with the legats, the State Department, the Armed Services, and other agencies.

As the need for intelligence related to the Axis threat in the West diminished towards the end of the war, the special agents assigned to posts in Europe, Canada, and Latin America began to make relationship-building and/or training their top priorities. In 1947, the FBI’s Special Intelligence Service was disbanded, and the newly formed CIA was tasked to take over foreign intelligence operations and to coordinate intelligence activities worldwide. But the Bureau’s network of legats overseas had proven its worth and continued to crystallize its liaison mission.

The number of legats operating from the 1950s through the 1980s fluctuated greatly due to crime trends and budget allowances, with offices opening, closing, and reopening at various times. In the 1990s, FBI Director Louis Freeh—recognizing that global crime and terror were on the rise—made it a priority to open a series of new legal attaché offices. At the start of his tenure in 1993, the Bureau had 21 offices in U.S. embassies worldwide; within eight years that number had doubled. Offices were opened, for example, in such strategic locations as Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

In 1999, an FBI agent was stationed full-time in Budapest, Hungary, at the request of the Hungarian National Police to handle an increasing number of investigations prompted largely by a rise in organized crime groups. In April 2000, this relationship was formalized into the FBI-Hungarian National Police Organized Crime Task Force, the first FBI task force established outside of the United States. The work of the task force continues to this day. A legal attaché office was later established in Budapest as well. 

The attacks of 9/11—and the increasing need for global cooperation to combat terrorism and other transnational threats—led to continued growth in the legal attaché program. By the end of 2006, the FBI had 57 permanent offices and 13 sub-offices in place, with 278 employees stationed abroad, including in new locations such as Baghdad, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Beijing, China; Doha, Qatar; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In 2009, the International Operations Division was created out of the former Office of International Operations that had been set up by Director Mueller following 9/11.

In recent years, the work of legal attachés has been vital in major investigations such as the East African embassy bombings of 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, 9/11, as well as countless other cases. Our legal attaché personnel have also helped coordinate the FBI’s role in special events overseas such as Olympic Games and the Bureau’s response to humanitarian crises beyond our nation’s borders.

Today, the Bureau has special agents and support professionals in more than 90 overseas offices and sub-offices, pursuing terrorist, intelligence, and criminal threats with international dimensions in every part of the world.