Driving toward Autonomy? The FBI in the Federal System, 1908-1960

63 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2019 Last revised: 18 Oct 2019

See all articles by Daniel C. Richman

Daniel C. Richman

Columbia Law School

Sarah Seo

University of Iowa College of Law

Date Written: July 4, 2019


This paper explains the growth of the FBI (“Bureau”) in the United States at a time when criminal justice was largely a local matter by reframing the criminal justice “(eco)system” in terms of informational economy, rather than jurisdictional authority. It argues that the Bureau came to occupy a key position in the national law enforcement ecosystem by providing an informational infrastructure that enabled it to cultivate relationships with local police agencies. This history offers two insights about the nature of American state and federalism in the twentieth century. First, the Bureau’s particular strategy for enlarging its capacity beyond its small size had the ironic effect of trading bureaucratic autonomy for political and operational support. Second, the strategy impeded the development of the states’ role in criminal law enforcement and stymied state-state collaborations. The patterns of collaboration that were set by the 1920s provided the blueprint for the federal government’s anti-crime initiatives throughout the rest of the century.

Keywords: FBI, federalism, agency autonomy, criminal justice information, law enforcement bureaucracies

Suggested Citation

Richman, Daniel C. and Seo, Sarah, Driving toward Autonomy? The FBI in the Federal System, 1908-1960 (July 4, 2019). Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-632, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-22, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3415103

Daniel C. Richman (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

Sarah Seo

University of Iowa College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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