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Historic America

Prohibition and the Birth of the National Security State

For most of American history, the Federal government had little policing power. America’s experiment with Prohibition would fundamentally change that.

The Netflix miniseries Waco (2018) highlighted what many perceived as out of control Federal policing in the 1990s, an issue that has certainly not gone away. These concerns are just the latest in a long line of criticism that Federal law enforcement agencies have too much power. How did we get here?

The birth of the National Security State can be directly traced back to the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol, which was adopted in 1919. If not for the nationwide law enforcement necessities of Prohibition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be nothing more than a few dozen agents in the Justice Department, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) would not exist.

For the first 100 years of United States history, the Federal government had very little internal policing power. Instead, it relied on private agencies like the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or left criminal investigation up to local authorities and individual states. In 1886, however, the Supreme Court ruled that states had no power to regulate interstate commerce. It was not until 1908 that U.S. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte organized the Bureau of Investigation and hired 12 agents for interstate policing.

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