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Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attaché Program*

Report No. 04-18
March 2004
Office of the Inspector General


Chapter 1: Introduction

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) serves as the principal investigative agency of the federal government, responsible for investigating crimes against the United States and performing other duties connected with national security.  FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. provides program direction and support to 56 field offices, approximately 400 satellite offices known as resident agencies, and 4 specialized field installations.

Although the FBI is a domestic law enforcement agency, it has stationed special agents abroad for many years in foreign posts known as Legal Attaché (Legat) offices.  Special agents assigned to 46 Legal Attaché offices and 5 sub-offices abroad work with their police counterparts in foreign countries to obtain information for the FBI on crimes and criminals that could harm U.S. citizens or interests.8  The globalization of crime and terrorism in recent years has resulted in a significant expansion in the FBI’s overseas operations.  Fiscal year 2003 expenditures for the Legal Attaché program totaled $43.7 million, up from $27.6 million for fiscal year 1997, or an increase of about 58 percent.

History of the Legal Attaché Program

The FBI began assigning agents abroad during World War II.  These agents were assigned initially to Central and South America to monitor activities of German agents operating in the area as well as individuals and organizations in the large German émigré community believed to be loyal to the Nazi regime.  By the end of World War II, agents also were posted to American embassies in Europe and Asia.  In subsequent years, the FBI opened and closed offices abroad depending on factors such as political conditions, changing criminal priorities, and FBI finances.  In 1953, there were 6 Legat offices; this rose to 12 by 1968.  By 1971, the number had increased to 17 offices and the justifications for the increase included a general rise in terrorism and airline hijackings, growing numbers of deserters and draft resisters overseas, and increases in drug trafficking.

The number of Legat offices continued to rise during the 1980s and 1990s, spurred by the increasing globalization of crime.  For example, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communist regimes opened borders and created a flood of organized criminal activity in those countries and the United States.  Likewise, the increasing flow and speed of international bank transfers, a liquid world-wide financial market, and loosened restrictions on the export of capital allowed large sums of money to be moved and concealed with ease by drug traffickers and white collar criminals.  By 1996, the FBI had 25 offices abroad.  Since then, the number has doubled due in part to the threat of international terrorism directed against the United States.

The increasing FBI presence overseas in the last two decades has also been fostered by changes in statutory authority.  Historically, the FBI’s criminal jurisdiction was largely limited to domestic investigations and activities.  The United States rarely asserted criminal jurisdiction beyond its borders and, consequently, most criminal behavior that occurred outside the country could not be prosecuted in U.S. courts.  In response to the rise in international crime and terrorism, however, Congress, through express statutory language, has extended federal jurisdiction “extraterritorially” to protect U.S. citizens and interests abroad.  According to a 1996 FBI report entitled The FBI’s Presence Overseas: The Need for FBI Agents Abroad to Better Protect the United States From International Crime and Terrorism, federal law covered nearly 50 types of offenses that could have an overseas element, double the number of crimes that existed before 1980.

The Legal Attaché Program Today

The map in Exhibit 1-1 and the table in Exhibit 1-2 show the locations of the 46 Legal Attaché offices open as of September 30, 2003, the year they were opened, and the geographic areas and countries they cover.  As the map also details, this geographic coverage extends to all countries in the world with the exception of Cuba, Iran, Libya, and North Korea—countries with which the United States has no formal diplomatic relations.  In addition, FBI agents from the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division are currently on temporary duty in Iraq, but these agents are not part of the Legat program. Almost two-thirds of the Legat offices have opened since 1990.  In order to open a new Legat office or modify staffing levels in existing offices, the FBI must obtain Department of Justice, Department of State, Office of Management and Budget, and Congressional approval.

World map showing the location of FBI Legal Attache Offices. For a text version refer the to table immediately after the graphic.

Legal Attaché Office Date Opened9 Countries
Almaty, Kazakhstan 2000 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Amman, Jordan 2001 Jordan
Ankara, Turkey 2000 Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey
Athens, Greece 1993 Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Syria
Bangkok, Thailand 1990 Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam
Beijing, China 2002 Mongolia, Peoples Republic of China
Bern, Switzerland Pre-1970 Liechtenstein, Switzerland
Berlin, Germany 199810 Germany
Bogotá, Colombia Pre-1970 Colombia, Ecuador
Brasilia, Brazil 1999 Brazil
Bridgetown, Barbados 1988 Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, French West Indies, Grenada, Guadeloupe (Islands of St. Barthelemy and French St. Martin), Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles (Islands of Saba, St. Eustatius, and Dutch St. Maarten), St. Christopher, St. Kitts/St. Nevis (British West Indies), St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago
Brussels,Belgium 1989 Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands
Bucharest, Romania 2001 Moldova, Romania
Buenos Aires, Argentina 1997 Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay
Cairo, Egypt 1996 Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan
Canberra, Australia Pre-1970 Australia, Christmas Island, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia (includes Austral Islands, Bora Bora, Marquesas Islands, Moorea, Society Islands, Tahiti), Kiribati (includes Canton, Caroline, Flint, Gilbert Islands, Malden, Phoenix, Starbuch, Vosttok), Nauru, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Niue, Pitcairn Island, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna Islands (French), Samoa
Caracas, Venezuela 1992 Aruba, French Guiana, Guyana, Netherlands Antilles (islands of Bonaire and Curacao), Suriname, Venezuela
Copenhagen, Denmark 1999 Denmark, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
Hong Kong, SAR, China Pre-1970 Hong Kong, Macau
Islamabad, Pakistan 1996 Afghanistan, Pakistan
Kiev, Ukraine 1997 Belarus, Ukraine
Lagos, Nigeria 1999 Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone
London, England Pre-1970 United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), Republic of Ireland, Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey)
Madrid, Spain 1991 Andorra, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Gibraltar, Portugal, Spain
Manila, Philippines 1988 Philippines
Mexico City, Mexico Pre-1970 Mexico
Miami, United States (Liaison Office) Not Determined Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Turks and Caicos Islands, Haiti
Moscow, Russia 1994 Russia
Nairobi, Kenya 2001 Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda
New Delhi, India 2000 Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka
Ottawa, Canada 1942 Canada
Panama City, Panama Pre-1970 Panama
Paris, France Pre-1970 Algeria, Benin, Burkina, Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, France, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire (aka Ivory Coast), Mali, Mauritania, Monaco, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zaire
Prague, Czech Republic 2000 Czech Republic, Slovakia
Pretoria, South Africa 1997 Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Diego Garcia (British Indian Ocean Territory), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 1997 Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen
Rome, Italy Pre-1970 Italy, Malta
Santiago, Chile 1994 Bolivia, Chile, Peru
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic 2001 Dominican Republic
Seoul, South Korea 2000 South Korea
Singapore, Singapore 2000 Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore
Tallinn, Estonia 1997 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania
Tel Aviv, Israel 1996 Israel
Tokyo, Japan 1954 Japan, Taiwan
Vienna, Austria 1992 Austria, Bosnia, Croatia, Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovenia, Yugoslavian Republic (Serbia and Montenegro)
Warsaw, Poland 1997 Poland

Plans are underway to expand the FBI’s overseas presence.  Five new offices are in the process of being opened in Georgia, Malaysia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  In addition, the FBI has received congressional approval to establish three sub-offices in existing Legats in Bonn, Germany (Legat Berlin); Milan, Italy (Legat Rome); and Toronto, Canada (Legat Ottawa).  Finally, the FBI has  augmented staff to the Legats in Amman, Jordan; Islamabad, Pakistan; Manila, Philippines; Ottawa, Canada; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Cairo, Egypt.

The Office of International Operations (OIO) at FBI Headquarters oversees the Legal Attaché program.  OIO provides managerial oversight as well as administrative and logistical support to Legal Attaché offices, employees, and their dependents.  In addition, it maintains contact with other federal agencies operating in the international arena, INTERPOL, and foreign police and security officers assigned to embassies (diplomatic missions) in the United States.11

Legal Attaché Staff

The title “Legal Attaché” was established by the Department of State for the special agent designated to be in charge of an FBI liaison office abroad.  These agents are typically senior managers with many years of experience in handling criminal investigations.  Additional agents assigned to the office are generally referred to as Assistant Legal Attachés, or ALATs.  Office Assistants provide administrative support.  The typical office has a Legal Attaché, one ALAT, and one Office Assistant although some of the larger offices have 10 or more permanent staff.  The Legal Attachés are generally temporary Grade 15s, and the ALATs are temporary Grade 14s for the term of their assignment.  In total, at the end of fiscal year 2003, the Legat offices were staffed with 119 special agents and 75 administrative support personnel.12 Legal Attaché personnel are considered part of the U.S. Embassy staff and the Legal Attaché office is located in a controlled access area within the diplomatically protected premises of a U.S. embassy or consulate.13

As needed, additional personnel are assigned to Legal Attaché offices on a temporary duty (TDY) basis to help manage the workload.  In addition, unless otherwise directed by FBI headquarters, Legal Attachés have authority over and are held responsible for all other FBI personnel who are in the country or region to work on specific investigations, attend conferences, or conduct training.

FBI and Legal Attaché Priorities

The intent of the Legal Attaché program is to create a network of law enforcement relationships that can work together to address the rising tide of international crime and terrorism.  Ultimately, the goal of the program is to detect, deter, and investigate international crimes against United States citizens and interests.  The FBI believes that placing agents overseas provides the most reliable, effective, and timely means to combat international crime and prevent it from reaching the United States.

In its 5-year strategic plan issued in May 1998, the FBI has identified three functional areas, or tiers, that describe the variety of threats that it must address to realize the goal of enhanced national and individual security.  Tier One encompasses foreign intelligence, terrorist, and criminal activities that directly threaten the national or economic security of the United States.  Tier Two encompasses crimes that affect the public safety or undermine the integrity of American society.  Tier Three encompasses crimes that affect individuals and crimes against property.  Legal Attaché investigative efforts cover all of these tiers, but much like the FBI as a whole since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, their number one priority is the prevention of terrorist attacks against the United States and its interests.  As a result, the bulk of the Legats’ workload centers on counterterrorism activities.

Activities of Legal Attachés

The activities of FBI staff assigned to Legal Attaché offices vary to some degree depending on the country or region where the office is located and the nature of the criminal threats to the United States.  In general, however, the primary function of Legal Attachés is to establish, maintain, and enhance liaison with foreign law enforcement agencies.  Legal Attachés serve as a conduit between FBI headquarters and field offices needing investigative assistance or information from foreign countries and law enforcement officials in those countries.  At the same time, foreign law enforcement agencies transmit their requests for investigative assistance in the United States via Legal Attaché offices to FBI domestic offices.  By working cooperatively with foreign police agencies, the Legal Attaché offices seek to build networks that prevent crime or, alternatively, that ensure access to the information the FBI needs to locate and extradite international criminals and terrorists and obtain evidence for their prosecution.  Most Legal Attachés have liaison responsibilities for multiple countries, so they often spend a significant portion of their time traveling.

In some instances, Legal Attaché staff may become directly involved in specific investigations and may be assisted in these investigations by FBI personnel sent from the United States.  However, Legal Attaché personnel have no law enforcement authority in foreign countries; they have no arrest powers and usually are not allowed to carry weapons.  Thus, investigations are usually conducted jointly with foreign law enforcement agencies in accordance with local laws and policies and procedures established by the host country.  In addition, because investigative activities could have an impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign relations, these investigations must be coordinated with the State Department.

Legal Attachés also facilitate the rapid deployment of FBI personnel in response to major cases such as the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (PENTTBOM).14  The number of agents and other FBI personnel that have been sent abroad temporarily to work on such investigations is significant.  For example, according to recent congressional testimony, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and throughout the following year, about 700 FBI personnel were temporarily assigned overseas to work on PENTTBOM.15

Another key function of Legal Attachés is to coordinate their activities with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that operate in the same country or regions to exchange information and to avoid duplication and overlap.  These include the Bureau of Diplomatic Security within the State Department, whose agents, known as Regional Security Officers (RSOs), protect U.S. embassy facilities; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE);16 and in countries where the U.S. military maintains installations, U.S. military investigative and intelligence services.  Legal Attachés also participate on embassy law enforcement teams, consisting of representatives of the federal law enforcement agencies assigned to the embassy, which advise the Ambassador and share information on law enforcement matters.

Providing or arranging for training for foreign police officials is another important activity of Legal Attachés.  For example, Legats make presentations at training sessions and seminars and arrange for technical assistance from FBI headquarters when needed or requested by the host country.  In addition, they interview candidates from among their foreign police contacts to attend law enforcement training programs in the United States and abroad.  This training includes the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, which mid-level managers from state, local, and foreign police agencies receive training, and the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary.  Programs like these are designed to strengthen ties between United States and foreign law enforcement officials.  Graduates of the FBI National Academy have an international alumni network and about 10 percent of National Academy students come from overseas.  Legal Attachés are expected to maintain close contact with graduates of the National Academy in their territory, meet with them regularly on matters of mutual interest, and hold periodic training sessions for the graduates.

Audit Approach

We initiated this audit because of the growing importance and significance of the FBI’s Legal Attaché program.  The objectives of our review were to examine the Legal Attaché program to determine: 1) the type of activities performed by Legal Attaché offices, 2) the effectiveness of the offices in establishing liaisons with foreign law enforcement agencies and in coordinating activities with other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies stationed overseas, 3) the criteria and process used by the FBI to determine the placement of offices including oversight and management of existing offices, and 4) the processes for selecting and training FBI personnel for Legat positions.

We conducted work primarily at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and at Legal Attaché offices in Berlin (and its sub-office in Frankfurt), Germany; Ottawa, Canada; Pretoria, South Africa; and Tokyo, Japan.

At FBI Headquarters we interviewed officials from the Office of International Operations; the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR); Language Services Section; and the Criminal, Counterterrorism, Inspection, Finance, Security, and Administrative Services Divisions.  We reviewed policies, procedures, manuals, correspondence, and other documents related to the Legal Attaché program.  We also reviewed Legal Attaché annual accomplishment reports, Inspection Division reports, workload data, OPR cases, vacancy packages and language scores, and information on TDY travel to selected foreign locations.

At the Legal Attaché offices, we interviewed the Legal Attaché and selected staff assigned to the office.  At each embassy, we also interviewed the Ambassador and selected embassy staff including representatives of other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  In addition, we interviewed officials at the American Consulates in Toronto, Canada, and Cape Town, South Africa (see Appendix III for a list of our contacts at the embassies and consulates visited).  We also interviewed numerous representatives from law enforcement and security agencies in the countries we visited (see Appendix II for a list of the foreign agencies).  At the Legal Attaché offices, we examined various records, files, and documents, observed physical security, followed up on selected FBI Inspection Division findings, and examined a judgmental sample of open requests for assistance from domestic FBI offices.  Further details of our scope and methodology are presented in Appendix I.

  1. At the time of our review, the FBI had 45 Legal Attaché offices abroad and a liaison office in Miami, Florida, which covered certain areas of Central America and the Caribbean. For purposes of this report, we included the Miami liaison office in the total of Legal Attaché offices. According to FBI officials, the Miami liaison office was closed effective October 1, 2003.
  2. The year opened for most pre-1970 offices was not readily available.
  3. Before 1998, the Legat in Germany was located in the city of Bonn.
  4. INTERPOL-the International Criminal Police Organization, with headquarters in Lyon, France, facilitates cooperation among international police authorities.
  5. See Appendix IV for a breakdown of personnel by office.
  6. A controlled access area is a specifically designated area within an embassy where classified information up to a secret level may be handled, stored, discussed, or processed.
  7. PENTTBOM is the FBI's term for its investigation of Pentagon-World Trade Towers bombings on September 11, 2001.
  8. Testimony of Roderick L. Beverly, Special Agent in Charge, Office of International Operations, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims, May 13, 2003.
  9. On March 1, 2003, the law enforcement and investigative functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Department of Justice and the Customs Service in the Department of Treasury were transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security.