I’m celebrating 100 episodes of FBI Retired Case File Review with a special crime fiction show exploring clichés and misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. What most people know about the FBI comes from popular culture. This list features what writers of novels, scripts, and screenplays sometimes get wrong about the Bureau and FBI agents. This is my second list. In Episode 50, I also wrote about this topic. Both lists were created for those who read and watch crime fiction about the FBI, write crime fiction and thrillers about the FBI, and who have always wanted to join the FBI.
Why should you care if entertainment media gets things wrong about the FBI in books, TV, and movies?
Why does it matter if films and novels occasionally contain false information about the FBI?
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My co-host for this episode is retired agent Bobby Chacon. We have both “been there” and “done that.” As you may recall, Bobby was my co-host in Episode 50, and in Episode 8, I interviewed him about working Jamaican drug gang cases and leading the FBI dive team.
I should be clear that as an author of FBI crime fiction I understand the use of creative license. I’m also aware that many of the clichés and misconceptions presented here are intentionally written into books, scripts, and screenplays due to time constraints and the need to create well-paced scenes and fully developed characters. These shortcuts are needed, at times, to tell a story in an entertaining way. Nevertheless, it’s also important to know how things really work. So, here are 10 more clichés and misconceptions about the FBI:
#1 The FBI recruits only former police, military officers, attorneys, and accountants. Actually, candidates for the special agent position come from a vast variety of backgrounds. Some worked everyday jobs, such as teachers, nurses, sales managers, linguists, cyber/computer specialists, pilots, and engineers before joining the FBI. Others were in pre-FBI positions that you would never imagine, such as dentist, medical doctors, and scientists with Ph.Ds. Let me also add a note about age requirements. Although the qualifying age to join the FBI is 23, the average agent is 30 years old and has worked a managerial-level job for several years prior to receiving an appointment. The mandatory retirement age for GS 1811 series federal law enforcement officers is 57. Of course, an agent can receive a limited extension if his or her continued service is in the public's interest. However, most agents retire from the FBI in their early 50's to start post-FBI-retirement positions while they're still marketable (ageism exists, even for FBI agents). Some TV shows cast actors that are too young or too old for the role of an FBI agent.
#2 Female FBI agents wear low, cut tight-fitting clothes. TV shows like Quantico overemphasize the physical attributes of the actresses portraying female agents. In the real world, all agents wear attire appropriate for the specific work environment. Female FBI characters are also often depicted as single and childless, when in fact, most female agents, like their male counterparts, have families. It can be done. But like any other high-pressure position, it requires support to navigate the long days with unpredictable hours and out-of-town travel.
#3 One agent can handle an entire investigation by his/herself. Actually, it takes a team to work a major investigation. In books, TV, and movies, one composite character might be created to portray the roles of several agents. Often, writers don’t have the time to develop multiple characters, so they create a character to represent all the players. But during a major investigation in the field, help with surveillances, searches, arrests, monitor wiretaps, transcribe tapes, is needed, and the entire squad or offices gets involved.
#4 Undercover agents run their cases. UCAs play an important role in FBI cases, but the case agent is responsible for the case. It might help to look at the UCA as a contract player and the case agent as the casting agent, director, and producer for the investigation. Also, an agent can’t simply raise their hand and be placed in a long-term undercover role. Intensive training and role-playing seminars determine an agent’s suitability. Pre and post evaluations are mandatory.
#5 Agents jet around the world in private jets to conduct investigations. Many investigations require that requests for investigation known as “leads” be sent to FBI offices throughout the country. A request is assigned to a “lead” agent who interviews witnesses, conducts surveillances, or obtains documents on behalf of agents assigned to other offices. If an agent is able to articulate that the interview or investigation must be conducted by him or her and is authorized to travel, in most cases, the agent is flying out on a commercial flight and in the economy section. There are important exceptions. The FBI does own and lease planes for immediate deployment to respond to crisis events all over the world.
#6 FBI can actively conduct investigations all over the world. If an FBI agent wants to interview a witness or subject in a foreign country, he or she must first submit an official request through the Department of Justice to obtain host country clearance. In many situations, the agent is not authorized to conduct the interview. Instead, with assistance from the FBI's foreign-based Legal Attachés, a list of questions is provided to the foreign country’s law enforcement officials who then conduct the interview and report back to the FBI. The exception is when the crimes or attacks against Americans fall under Extraterritorial Jurisdiction. In the mid-1980s, Congress passed laws authorizing the FBI to investigate hostage-taking and kidnappings of Americans and terrorist acts against U.S. citizens or national interests overseas. Agents assigned overseas investigations still work with that foreign nation’s law enforcement and security personnel, in concert with the U.S. Embassy and the Ambassador. However, FBI jurisdiction doesn’t extend to non-terrorism related homicides, robberies, rapes, and muggings of Americans—these are usually handled by local authorities. In these instances, the FBI can offer investigative or forensics assistance if asked and if appropriate.
#7 An FBI forensic examiner does it all, even makes arrests. A forensic examiner is not a one-stop shop. Unlike on TV, each examiner at the FBI Laboratory has a specialty, whether it be DNA, hair and fibers, fingerprints or blood splatter analysis. Another thing that TV shows and books get wrong is chain of custody and evidence preservation. It’s not enough to pick up an item at a crime scene and drop it into a baggie or tissue pulled from the agent's pants pocket. Requirements are stringent. Evidence must be preserved and sealed in special evidence bags and the handling and custody of the evidence documented. If the chain is broken, the evidence may not be acceptable to be entered as evidence in court. The most frequently recognized misconception is that DNA and other forensic evidence is always present and can be analyzed quickly. This unrealistic expectation based on TV shows is known as the “CSI effect” and has seriously impacted what jurors expect during trials.
#8 Being an FBI bomb tech is a dangerous job. What most people know about bomb techs is from movies like the Hurt Locker. In real life, hand entry, where a tech actually places his hands on an unexploded IED or suspicious package, is no longer or rarely done. Back in the old days before robots and bomb suits, a bomb tech lacked proper safety equipment and being a bomb tech was a dangerous job. Nowadays, a bomb tech’s primary role is to respond to calls about suspicious packages, and remote equipment is used examine and render safe possible explosive devices. Bomb techs also process post-blast bombing crime scenes.
#9 FBI agents investigate murders. Yes, but only under special circumstances. Usually, if the FBI is investigating a murder case, there is another crime, a federal violation also in play. Such as a hate crime, where the homicide violated the victim's constitutional and civil rights, or when a teller or security guard is murdered during the robbery of a federally insured bank, or the victim is killed during a kidnapping where the victim was taken across state lines. The FBI authorization to investigate a murder is most clear under the following circumstances; when the homicide occurs on federal property or an Indian reservation, and under Special Maritime or Territorial Jurisdiction, when the murder occurs onboard a U.S. Navy or U.S. Merchant Marine ship in international waters or on U.S. military bases worldwide. During state and local murder investigations, an “Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution” or UFAP warrant can be issued, and the Bureau can enter the case. Technically, however, the investigation of the actual murder is not the Bureau’s task, just the apprehension of the interstate fugitive suspect and the murder suspect once located and arrested is tried in state court.
#10 Bad guys are plotting to enact revenge against the FBI agents who put them behind bars. A frequent storyline for books, TV shows, and movies is where the bad guy sets up elaborate crimes and plays mind games to get back at or lure in the agent who was responsible for him spending years in jail. Now, this is something the FBI is very cautious about. An agent will receive a transfer if there is any expressed threat to him/her or their loved ones. This scenario is a great cliché for thrillers and works for well for the genre. However, in most cases, it's the opposite. Based on the respect and courtesy shown to them during the investigation, bad guys often call agents from jail and after they've served their time just to keep in touch.
The following are links to newspaper articles about the ways the Bureau works with writers to get it things right about the FBI in books, TV, and movies:
FBI Website: How can screenwriters, authors, and producers seeking authenticity work with the FBI?
BuzzFeed News 10/9/2017: Inside The FBI's Half-Secret Relationship With Hollywood
Business Insider 8/22/2016: 11 things Hollywood gets wrong about being an FBI agent — and one thing it gets right