The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the central federal investigative agency responsible for investigations into possible violations of federal law. In actuality, however, the FBI is but one of many federal law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction to investigate federal crimes. Indeed, there are over 100 such agencies and departments within the federal government. For example, most of the large federal departments of government have Inspector Generals responsible for investigating criminal conduct within the scope of such departments’ activities. The Department of Transportation has an Inspector General division whose chief responsibility is to investigate crimes occurring in connection with DOT programs. Similarly, Inspector Generals for the Department of Agriculture investigate suspected food stamp fraud, while Inspector Generals with the Social Security Administration investigate allegations of fraud in connection with its activities. Today, there are 73 statutory Inspector Generals in this country. More information can be found on the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s website.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the chief federal investigative agency responsible for the investigation of narcotics activities in this country. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a branch responsible for the investigation of criminal tax violations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) investigates obvious conduct within its sphere of jurisdiction, just as the Secret Service (a division of the United States Department of Treasury) investigates counterfeiting activities, a matter peculiarly within its realm of expertise. Thus, while the FBI is the most visible and well-known federal law enforcement agency, it is but one bright star in a large constellation of others.
Whenever a possible crime is brought to its attention, the initial role of a federal investigative agency is to determine whether a federal investigation is warranted. If so, its chief function will be to investigate the matter as thoroughly as possible to discover the truth. What is the offense that has been committed? Who are the perpetrators and the alleged victims? Who are the witnesses and what evidence exists documenting what has occurred? In order to discover the truth, the chief function of the investigative agency will be a fact-finding process.
Typically, once there is some report of a possible violation of federal law, the agency responsible for the investigation will assign an agent to explore the initial report. If he/she feels there is reason to believe that federal law has been violated, a case file will then be opened. At this point, and before any further investigation is commenced, the investigative agency (except in obvious cases) will contact the local United States Attorney’s office to discuss the preliminary facts with an on duty federal prosecutor to make sure there is interest in pursuing the case. It is at this stage that many cases are declined for federal prosecution based on policy considerations and referred to state and/or local authorities for further investigation. If, however, there is a prosecutorial interest in the alleged violation, a full-blown investigation of the matter is then commenced. In other words, if an Assistant United States Attorney concludes after presentation of preliminary facts that federal law may have been violated and there is a prosecutorial interest in the case, a formal investigation of the alleged conduct will begin.
The role of the federal investigative agency is to fully develop all facts pertinent to the alleged offense. The case agent responsible for the investigation will endeavor to interview all persons with knowledge of the facts and to obtain all documents that relate to the crime. If evidence is available for forensic analysis, it will be carefully collected, preserved and forwarded to division laboratories for testing and evaluation. A report of all such investigative acts will be prepared for submission to the Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to prosecute the case.