Slate's Explainer: The FBI Goes to Aruba

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The disappearance of an Alabama teenager on a high school graduation trip to Aruba has drawn the FBI to the Caribbean island to aid in the investigation. Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how an American law enforcement agency gets to participate in such a search in another sovereign country.


On the Caribbean island of Aruba, police are still searching for an American teen-ager who disappeared last week during a senior class trip. Two former security guards are being held in the disappearance of the girl, Natalee Holloway. FBI divers and forensic specialists are helping the local police. And after news about that got out, several readers of our online partner magazine Slate wrote in wondering the same thing: What's the FBI doing in Aruba? That's an Explainer question, and here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

The FBI is just helping out. The bureau has agents stationed all over the world working at legal attache offices or Legats. These offices associated with US embassies step in when a foreign government requests assistance in a local police investigation. Cooperation between the FBI and a foreign police force is fairly common. 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 Legat in neighboring Barbados coordinated assistance from the FBI office in Birmingham, Alabama, Holloway's hometown.

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. The number of legal attache offices increased during World War II, a time of dramatic growth for the FBI. In the mid-1980s, Congress passed legislation giving the FBI jurisdiction over acts of terrorism committed against American citizens overseas. Starting in the 1990s, the bureau opened a large number of new Legats to help combat terrorism and other transnational crimes. There are now about 50 offices spread all over the world. By the end of this year, new Legats will open in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Sarajevo, Bosnia.

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

CHADWICK: That Explainer from Andy Bowers. Andy is an editor at our partner magazine Slate, and the article was researched by Daniel Engber.

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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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