FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2013
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Agency overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is housed under the U.S. Department of Justice with field offices throughout the country. Its agents are responsible for investigating federal crimes that occur within the United States. FBI cases are as diverse as white-collar crime, serial killing, terrorism, and espionage. The forerunner of the FBI was established in 1908 when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte and President Theodore Roosevelt hired thirty-four investigators and designated them as a special agent force, ordering the Department of Justice to refer their cases to these agents for investigation. The pair's desire to create a bureau of agents to strengthen the federal government's crime-fighting capabilities grew out of the need for reform during the Progressive Era of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Department of Justice named this force the Bureau of Investigation in 1909; renamed it the United States Bureau of Investigation in 1932; and finally, in 1935, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The American public calls the agency by its initials or identifies it simply as “the bureau.” Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the role of the FBI has been increasingly involved with intelligence and with the war on terror. As part of the reforms that were put in place after that event, the FBI now cooperates closely with other government agencies and with state and local officials.


The FBI gained power and popular notoriety during the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s. This era was characterized by a general sense of lawlessness accompanying ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition), which forbade the manufacture, sale, transport, export, and import of alcohol, as well as by the despair and fear precipitated by the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. Organized crime took root more strongly than ever because of its involvement in the production and distribution of illegal alcohol. Americans felt that they were witnessing illegal activity with increasing frequency and that criminals were lurking on every corner. The famous kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son and the crimes of the legendary gangster Al Capone had captured American imaginations, and the public demanded revenge. There was widespread fear that the exploding crime wave was undermining the country's moral base. These developments led to a desire for a strong national crime-fighting presence. The people increasingly looked to the FBI to bring order to their chaotic world.

J. Edgar Hoover. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reviews a map in his office locating the bureaus offices and operations across the United States in 1942.

J. Edgar Hoover. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reviews a map in his office locating the bureau's offices and operations across the United States in 1942. AP IMAGES.

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FBI agents have enjoyed a leading role in American popular culture almost since the bureau's inception—the dashing secret agent who saves America from communism; the mysterious man in black; the image of a “G-man.” Radio shows, movies, novels, magazines, and television shows have all featured FBI agents and their adventures. The FBI's popularity demonstrates the American public's fascination with crime and punishment as moral conflict between good and evil. As scholar Richard Gid Powers notes in G-Men: Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture, “a formula adapts the universal myth to the national experience so that national history might be understood as an instance of the eternal struggle between good and evil.” The FBI and its agents became potent forces in this eternal struggle as it played out in American popular culture.

People also sought escape from the troubling times through popular entertainment. Popular culture anointed the FBI as the nation's solution to the problem of the mythical public enemy. Gangsters and their FBI pursuers quickly found their way into movies, detective fiction, magazines, and radio shows. Popular culture helped the FBI agent become a beacon of hope that American values would survive the crime wave and the economic despair of the nation.


No figure has been more closely associated with the popular image of the FBI as the major force in defending the nation against crime than J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's most controversial leader. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone selected Hoover to head the FBI in 1924. Hoover quickly gave the bureau a more professional image and solidified its strength by firing unqualified agents and establishing formal training for all agents at the newly created National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He also oversaw the creation of the FBI's Technical Laboratory and the establishment of a nationally centralized fingerprint database to aid in tracking criminals. Hoover was not only a great leader, but he was also a great publicity agent who carefully presided over the growing public popularity of both himself and his organization. In his day, Hoover was a dominant presence that the government, his agents, and the public both feared and admired.

Though Hoover and his G-men set the early standard for the quintessential FBI agent, Hoover's image dipped after his death in 1972 and a subsequent public reevaluation of his methods. He became widely associated with the negative image of government as “Big Brother,” spying on the average citizen and maintaining secret files, and he gained much notoriety due to his widely rumored penchant for cross-dressing. Hoover's legacy also became entwined with the increasingly negative popular images of American government that began in the late 1950s and 1960s.


In the middle decades of the twentieth century, there was a growing public distrust of government and its official representatives for a number of reasons. The FBI was not immune to this image problem. Some of the government's most notorious actions involved the witch hunts for suspected communists that dominated the World War I, World War II, and Cold War periods. The bureau assisted Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during World War I in the quest to expose American communists and communist sympathizers. Hoover, an assistant to Palmer at this time, was a key figure in the endeavor and was responsible for compiling the list of alleged subversives. The FBI then gained its own power to investigate subversives during World War II. When Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee went too far in the minds of most Americans, all government officials involved in the hunt for communists were caught in the scandal.

The FBI's role in detecting subversion, sabotage, and espionage had at first enhanced its image as protector of the American way of life but ultimately led to a more negative image of the FBI as Big Brother. During the 1960s the FBI's image suffered again. Many Americans found the bureau's overall treatment of minorities and people the bureau and/or Richard Nixon labeled as subversives to be questionable at best. Many citizens felt that the FBI unjustly persecuted antiestablishment groups such as anti–Vietnam War demonstrators, radical students, and minority activists. The FBI was also involved in such controversial 1960s civil rights investigations as the Mississippi murders of three civil rights workers later immortalized in the movie Mississippi Burning (1988). The FBI conducted these investigations under the auspices of a secret FBI program known as COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), which ran between 1956 and 1971 with the purpose of identifying and infiltrating domestic groups considered to be threats to national security. The culmination of the growing popular cynicism toward government and authority, however, is widely regarded as the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Nixon; it is not without irony that the Watergate scandal was blown open by a source in the FBI.

The FBI also garnered a negative image by figuring prominently in a number of conspiracy theories that captured the American imagination. Perhaps the most famous of these theories have revolved around the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Much controversy surrounded the official Warren Commission's report of the events responsible for Kennedy's death and the naming of Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole killer. Oliver Stone offered one of the most famous treatments of these conspiracy theories in his movie JFK (1991).

Conspiracy theories have also circulated widely on the question of whether UFOs exist and whether the government was responsible for covering up any such knowledge. Many rumors centered on the alleged crash of one such UFO at Roswell, New Mexico. The popularity of the television show The X-Files (1993–2002) proved that the popularity of these theories of alien contact continued to thrive into the late twentieth century. The show portrayed two FBI agents assigned to investigate unexplained X-File cases of possible paranormal and extraterrestrial activity as well as government conspiracies to conceal the truth.


The latter decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revival of the get-tough-on-crime stance that first made the FBI popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The largely positive response from the American public to this stance was due to an alarming growth of terrorist incidents, the illegal drug trade, and white-collar crime. Infamous serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer also instilled fear into the American public. But crime-fighting techniques were developed to combat these threats. The FBI behavioral sciences unit pioneered the technique of profiling violent and serial offenders, and DNA technology greatly aided the fight against crime. The television show America's Most Page 291  |  Top of ArticleWanted as well as the bureau's Ten Most Wanted lists involved the public in the FBI's manhunts.

Despite the events that reestablished the “tough guy” image of the FBI, other incidents challenged the public's views of the bureau's policies. The 1992 death of a U.S. marshal led to a standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, between the FBI and fugitive Randall Weaver, during which Weaver's wife was accidentally killed by a sniper's bullet. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, isolated themselves in their compound near Waco, Texas, leading to another FBI siege in 1993. This siege ended amid much controversy when some cult members deliberately set fire to their compound rather than surrender. The negative publicity garnered by these events led to governmental inquiries into the FBI's conduct. They also quickly became made-for-television movies. While the FBI's role has always centered on the struggle between the forces of good and evil, the FBI's changing image shows that it is often difficult to distinguish between these seemingly diametrically opposite forces.


The FBI took on a more prominent role in counterterrorism following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In both cases, technological advancements and traditional on-the-ground measures improved the agency's public image. The FBI informant network led to the conviction of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and his conspirators for the Trade Center bombing. In the Oklahoma City case, agents investigated identification numbers from remnants of the vehicle used in the attack and linked the Ryder rental truck to Timothy McVeigh. In 1996, the agency concluded the most expensive investigation in its history by tracking down and capturing Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, who committed a series of mail bombings between 1978 and 1995. Although Kaczynski's brother David assisted in the investigation, he was initially reluctant to involve the FBI due to its track record at Waco and Ruby Ridge. The agency's reputation was again clouded in 1996, when a suspect's name was leaked to the media during the investigation of the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.

The FBI was one of the intelligence agencies that underwent public scrutiny in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Analysts called for the dissolution of the clear division of power between the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), demanding that a single director of National Intelligence be created at the cabinet level. President George W. Bush responded by creating the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and instituting a major reorganization of government agencies. In its 2004 report, the 9/11 Commission concluded that the FBI failed to pursue numerous leads that might have prevented the attacks. The commission offered numerous recommendations to improve the FBI's organizational structure. Since the report, members of the commission, watchdog groups, and politicians have questioned the FBI's willingness to commit to the changes.

Also in 2001, the FBI faced a security breach that threw into doubt its ability to maintain the public trust. Robert Hanssen, a high-ranking agent, was caught selling secret information to the Russian government. After his arrest, it was revealed that Hanssen had been selling documents since 1979 and had received close to $1.5 million from the Russians. The reports of Hanssen's activities and the manner in which he was caught brought to life the mythic image of the FBI that most American's held. The media reports read like a cloak-and-dagger tale, complete with moles, secret drop sites, and familial betrayal.

The FBI has been a constant source of fascination for the media. Aside from The FBI, a pro-FBI television show that aired from 1965 to 1974 and was sanctioned by the bureau, since 1935's G-Men and Hoover's propaganda the popular image of the FBI has been altered by televisions shows, including The X-Files, Bones (2005– ), and The Sopranos (1999–2007), and movies such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Siege (1998), Breach (2007), and Public Enemies (2009). Not surprisingly, the 2011 film J. Edgar proved financially successful in spite of its mixed reviews. Popular culture has consistently depicted the bureau performing clandestine investigations or unearthing spectacular secrets.

Marcella Bush Treviño


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Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. “The FBI's Continuing Challenge.” Chronicle of Higher Education 51, no. 20 (2005).

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The FBI: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

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Potter, Claire Bond. War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Treviño, Marcella Bush. "FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 2, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 289-291. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2735800922%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Ddenver%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D4d8aaabf. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2735800922

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