What’s the FBI Doing in Aruba?

Can the bureau snoop around overseas?

An American teenager disappeared in Aruba last Monday. An FBI dive team has joined local police in a large-scale search, and FBI forensics specialists analyzed a bloodstained mattress that turned out to be unrelated to the case. What’s the FBI doing in Aruba?

It’s just helping out. The FBI has agents all over the world, working at legal attache offices, or “legats.” These offices, which are associated with U.S. embassies, step in when a foreign government requests assistance in a local police investigation. Cooperation between the FBI and a foreign police force is not at all uncommon.

The agents in the legat pass the case to an FBI field office in the United States, which provides the actual help. When Natalee Holloway went missing in Aruba (a Caribbean island that’s a semiautonomous part of the Netherlands), a legat in the neighboring island of Barbados coordinated assistance from the field office in Birmingham, Ala., where the missing girl is from.

FBI involvement in foreign countries dates back to the bureau’s early days, when agents dealt with a number of border issues related to the Mexican revolution. Legal attache offices increased in number during World War II, at a time of dramatic growth for the FBI and concern over foreign influences in South America and elsewhere.

Starting in the 1990s, the bureau opened a large number of new legats to help combat terrorism and other transnational crimes. (In the mid-1980s, Congress passed legislation giving the FBI jurisdiction over acts of terrorism committed against American citizens overseas.) The number of offices has more or less doubled in recent years; there are now about 50, spread all over the world. By the end of this year, new legats will open in Kabul, Afghanistan; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Legal attaches from the FBI sometimes invite foreign police officers to train at the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Va. These officers often rise to positions of authority in their home countries, which further facilitates cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. Among the members of the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police, for example, one-quarter are academy alumni.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Richard Powers of the College of Staten Island, former FBI historian Susan Rosenfeld, John Fox of the FBI, and several Slate readers for asking the question.