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A Byte Out of History: International Liaison Operation

A Byte Out of History
The Birthing of the FBI’s International Liaison Operation


FBI Headquarters exterior in 1943It was wartime, February 11, 1943. The battle of Guadalcanal was climaxing; Rommel was on the offensive in North Africa; the Germans were surrendering their armies in Stalingrad. The FBI’s work on counterintelligence issues had grown tremendously during the war, both at home and overseas and on this day it recognized that growth by centralizing the way it coordinated intelligence and liaison matterscreating a “Liaison Section”in what was then called the Security Division.

The FBI’s international arm. Seven special agents and 18 support personnel got to work. They handled all contacts with the State Department, the armed services, the Office of Strategic Services, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Naval Communications, and Army Intelligence. They maintained contacts with British Security and other international partners. And they helped coordinate the activities of agents working overseas as legal attaché officers (“legats”) as part of the Bureau’s Special Intelligence Service (SIS), established by Presidential Directive in 1940.

Lots of great work was done in those fearful days, most concerning counterintelligence issuesbut not all. Liaison section members also used legats to coordinate the pursuit of fugitives and criminal matters and to train the local police in casework and evidence collection. They coordinated the identification of missing and deceased persons, the processing of name checks, and services like fingerprinting and lab work.

Postwar operations. After the war, the SIS was disbanded. The Liaison Section, accordingly, shrank...but it didn’t disappear. Its network of legats overseas had proven its worth on police training and criminal matters alone. And that network continued to crystallize. The first four legat officesMexico City, Bogota, London, and Ottawa, all opened in the early stages of the warwere joined by Paris and Panama City in 1945. Then by Rome and Tokyo in the ‘50s and by Bern and Hong Kong in the ‘60s.

Globalizing in the 21st century. Today, the Liaison Section is a full-fledged Office of International Operations (OIO). OIO now supports some 200 FBI employees in 45 legats worldwide and hundreds of agents rotating in and out of temporary assignments overseas. It’s responsible for our day-to-day contacts with foreign government officials in the U.S., our meetings with international leaders, and our language and translation programs. And it takes the lead in managing our partnerships with all manner of global and regional crime-fighting initiatives, including: Interpol and Europol; Resolution 6, which co-locates FBI agents in DEA offices overseas to combat drugs; and the Budapest Project.

Thanks to the foundations laid by the Liaison Section beginning six decades ago, we now have solid working relationships with a range of colleagues in every part of the world, pursuing terrorist, intelligence, and criminal threats with international dimensions. It’s no exaggeration to say that the FBI is a global organization for a global age.

Related Links: Legal Attaché offices | FBI History