Today saw the launch of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the UK, an organisation dedicated to tackling organised crime, border insecurity, economic crime and child exploitation in particular. It has been compared to the FBI by some, whilst Labour supporters claim that the NCA is nothing more than a re-branding of its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
For the coalition government to justify the role of the NCA and its 4,500 officers, it needs to make sure the agency is bolder and more active than SOCA was. In this sense, it needs to take note from the early development of the FBI and attain a comparable public profile to that entrenched institution of American policing.
Launched in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the FBI was a crucial creation in allowing federally-coordinated serious crime prevention in the US. On the ascension of J. Edgar Hoover to the Directorship in 1924, the BOI aggressively began pursuing organized criminals, using modern technology and scientific profiling, in addition to a ruthless execution of justice.
The 1930s ‘war on crime’ period against Depression-era gangsters such as John Dillinger, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, rocketed the DOI into the national consciousness. Prepared to use lethal force if necessary (as attested to by the shootings of Dillinger and Nelson), Hoover’s G-Men brought a much needed attitude of intolerance to organised and violent crime, which had been glamourised in the mainstream media.
Renamed as the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, FBI agents used ethically-dubious techniques to achieve intelligence and, ultimately, success. Unsanctioned wiretaps, bugging of hotel suites and the utilisation of ‘lesser’ criminals or ‘informants’ proved effective, even if their moral efficacy was questioned in some quarters.
Whilst history will remember Hoover as a paranoid bigot with an apparently-lurid private life, his ruthless pursuit of criminality (be it the Mafia, Ku Klux Klan, domestic terrorists or armed robbers) justified the FBI’s continuing existence.
If the NCA in Britain is to have the same affect as the FBI, it must conduct itself with a similar unscrupulousness (however morally dubious that may sometimes be) to its American equivalent. Few people will have heard of SOCA in the UK, testament to its nullified affect. American criminals, however sophisticated, are always wary of the FBI and this in itself can discourage criminal activity and encourage informants to come forward.
With its increasing role in counter-terrorism, the FBI has also attained a degree of acceptance with the American public, many of whom understand the occasional need for the breach of their liberties as a means of enhancing national security.
Like the FBI, the NCA needs to adopt a brazen public profile; criminals need to be aware of its existence and the success of its operations so that a degree of wariness (if not fear) can be instilled. The raids on several homes across the country today is a good start.
Whether the NCA can truly be compared to the FBI, particularly given its comparatively tiny budget, remains to be seen, but its leaders must adopt a persistently ruthless approach to criminality which has enabled the FBI to stay at the forefront of American policing for over a century.