Agent 23: If you don't follow the rules here then what are we?
In popular perception (or at least in popular media), the Federal Bureau of Investigations chases serial killers, busts countrywide fraud rings, checks out paranormal weirdness
and is generally portrayed as good and law-abiding
The Central Intelligence Agency
, on the other hand, is often perceived and portrayed as an organization of sociopathic American imperialists who like to lie, cheat, steal from foreigners
, overthrow the governments of said foreigners and perform unethical psychological experiments for kicks
Expect lots of Interservice Rivalry
and Jurisdiction Friction
should they run into each other, especially
if they are Working the Same Case
. If the FBI are the bad guys, expect the good guys to be salt-of-the-earth honest flatfoot coppers
; for the CIA to be good guys they'd have to be up against the even shadowier NSA
. Or actual bad guys, of course.
Then, there is the David Petraeus case, which may deserve its own trope soon..
See the Wikipedia articles on CIA in fiction
and FBI portrayal in media
Interestingly, the FBI is very much aware of this trope
. FBI agents are taught to be courteous and professional specifically for the purpose of contrasting with the negative CIA stereotype. As a result, there have been cases where CIA informants have requested FBI handlers because of the bureau's reputation.
There is some overlap however, with the abuses of the longtime FBI head, J.Edgar Hoover, being exposed. The reports of him blackmailing politicians, persecuting political dissidents like Martin Luther King Jr.
, falsely claiming Ma Barker was a crime boss to excuse killing her in the crossfire of a shootout with the Barker Gang, ruining the lives of competent agents like Melvin Purvis so he could claim all the credit of their work for himself, as well as allegations such as being blackmailed by the mob for being a transvestite have done much to blacken the name of the FBI under his tenure. Now, the image of the FBI is about stressing how they have moved beyond the legacy of that hypocritical bully.
More recently, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been increasingly portrayed in fiction as engaging in the same kind of dirty operations as the CIA, or even being a full-fledged State Sec
of the United States, staffed exclusively by Obstructive Bureaucrats
. This is likely a result of the agency's notorious secrecy. As the agency responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT), i.e., intercepting and decrypting the communications of rival and hostile groups, they would not engage in CIA-style fieldwork. (Although they could and have
engage in other naughty business
). See Wikipedia on the NSA in popular culture
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CIA Evil examples
Anime and Manga
- Once upon a Time in Mexico has a corrupt CIA operative involved in the attempted assassination of the president of Mexico. On the other hand, Once Upon a Time... operates on a general (although not entirely) "Gringos = Evil" principle, and the FBI hardly has jurisdiction in Mexico.
- In Air America, the CIA uses the title airline to smuggle drugs.
- More like Rogue CIA Evil, Senator Good
- In Steven Seagal's film debut, Above The Law corrupt CIA operatives are smuggling drugs to finance operations in Latin America. Does This Remind You of Anything?
- The newest James Bond movies emphasize the moral grayness of the CIA, though Felix Leiter remains a fairly decent guy.
- The Bourne Series. If the US Government needs to kill off an "undesirable" but have no jurisdiction or other political excuse to actually engage the target, the CIA will just send one of their untraceable brainwashed assassins and frame it on someone else.
- And they're more than willing to kill any witnesses to maintain deniability, including themselves.
- The Bourne Legacy reveals that the NSA have their own batch of assassins, and implies that every American military / intelligence agency has their own collection of brainwashed killers with Treadstone and Blackbriar only being the tip of the iceberg.
- The A-Team film actually subverts this at first - the CIA agent who was involved in the Op that got the A-Team framed was also burned and is looking for revenge, as well. Then he tries to blow them up.
- It's more that the trope was played with, rather than subverted. The CIA agent was working with an Army general and a mercenary to steal plates that could be used to print American currency, so all three are bad guys. The general and the mercenary betrayed him, so the CIA agent used the A-Team to hunt them down. He only seemed like a good guy at first because each member of this conspiracy was pretending to dislike the other two.
- The Hunt for Red October: Aversion. CIA agents are shown as faithful public servants. In the book they at times have a Darker and Edgier streak though.
- The CIA in X-Men: First Class isn't exactly evil, although most of its members certainly acted like Jerkasses.
- This is a large part of the plot twists to Safe House: There is a faction within the CIA (and every intelligence service in NATO) working to cover up their more... questionable activities of the past, believing that given the danger of their work, they are above any kind of civilian oversight or traditional legal framework. Anyone who's tried to reveal this has been killed or branded a "Rogue Agent," such as the two leading characters. In general, the CIA is shown to do a lot of "dirty jobs" and "wetwork", skirting the various treaties and international laws they should be beholden to, as well as altering official reports of events and manipulating their own staff to get what they want politically. While various characters question these actions or outright protest, the old guard maintains this is what working for the CIA (or any intelligence service) entails.
- Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: Played as straight as an arrow! The Vigilantes have to fight Henry "Hank" Jellicoe, a CIA agent gone rogue. At one point between a conversation between a former FBI director and a former CIA director, the ex-CIA director says that he has no redeeming qualities at all, while the ex-FBI director can say that he's been kind to children and puppies. The CIA is definitely much worse than the FBI in this series!
- The "Mitch Rapp" series by Vince Flynn plays with this concept quite interestingly. The CIA protagonists are all patriotic, skilled and dedicated people who do terrible and completely illegal things to the enemies of the West (mostly but not exclusively Islamic terrorists). The FBI are equally patriotic, skilled and dedicated people who interfere, obstruct and generally try to prevent the actions of the CIA people, because they believe in the rule of law over expediency. Both are portrayed as correct in their view, though the author clearly and frequently makes the point that by the time the FBI follows all of their rules, the bad guys will have escaped and done other bad things. The actions of the CIA people are evil, but they both share the good motivations of protecting America from truly evil people, though their methods are diametrically opposed to each other.
- The 'FBI good' part of the trope is demolished in the Nero Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang, which was written when Hoover was still director and instances of FBI corruption were beginning to be exposed. In it, the FBI are presented as underhanded, petty and abusive of their authority, having launched into a spiteful campaign of harassment against Wolfe's client when she sent out copies of an anti-FBI book in protest against their actions. They then turn this campaign on Wolfe himself when he accepts the case to get them to back off, only to panic when Wolfe apparently discovers evidence that FBI agents murdered a journalist who was writing an article denouncing them. This leads FBI agents to break into his house at one point to try and recover the evidence. They actually didn't commit the murder, but Wolfe strings them along, holds the credentials of the agents who illegally entered his house hostage and then uses them as leverage to get the FBI to abandon their campaign against him and his client.
Live Action TV
- Alias subverts this in the pilot by having a secret CIA branch committing a murder, only to later reveal that the branch is not CIA at all, and the real CIA is out to get them.
- Covert Affairs, at least from the pilot, is an aversion. The CIA are shown as normal and reasonably likable people with normal lives bantering at the office in a normal fashion.
- Of course, due to their mode of operation, to other people such as the FBI, they can seem this way. At the same time, the FBI -still- comes off as good-er than the CIA for being less shadowy.
- JAG: Partial aversion. The CIA is sometimes shown as evil but sometimes shown as just Combat Pragmatists.
- Its spinoff show, NCIS, follows in its footsteps.
- As well as that show's spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles: In a recent episode, two CIA members posed as FBI members in order to locate an advanced drone that they somehow bungled and let fall into Al Qaida's hands, and even worse was being delivered to an infamous drug cartel. It's also a subversion, in that the only evil member of the CIA was actually a double agent for the drug cartel who was also implied to be a dirty cop from Mexico beforehand who was involved in the Mexican Police Chief's younger brother's death.
- Intelligence is a series partially about employees of Canada's spy service, and the CIA was a frequent foe due to their habit of planting spies in the Canadian government.
- Leverage: At least one agent in the CIA is using its connections to a top-secret college club to test new torture techniques on homeless veterans. The team avenges the man who died of a heart attack and ruins the cocky student running the experiment, but at the cost of making themselves known to the CIA.
- In Person of Interest the CIA look like a bunch of cold blooded killers that the FBI wants to take down. Agent Snow in particular loves to use the You Have Outlived Your Usefulness trope on anyone that works for him.
- In Homeland it's more like CIA Good, FBI Incompetent, as they are shown to be overly gung-ho, racist, and otherwise sloppy in doing their jobs compared to the Company protagonists of the show.
- In Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the CIA Agent that The Squad is sent to support turns traitor and tries to get you killed.
- Naked Snake of Metal Gear Solid 3 is a CIA agent, but is also a good guy... At first.
- Played completely straight in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker also portrays the CIA as being one of the villains. Well, kind of: The group that was in Costa Rica, the Peace Sentinels, while technically of CIA origin, was apparently a rogue CIA group from some hints dropped in the game.
- Averted in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, where Snake was revealed to be a former CIA agent, and besides which, one of his radio contacts, Holly White, was a CIA agent, and yet was not a bad person at all.
- In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the player assumes control of a soldier recruited as an undercover CIA operative who participates in a Russian airport massacre.
- To be fair, you don't even have to shoot any civilians or cops until the riot teams start arriving toward the end.
- In Muv-Luv Alternative, the CIA is implied to have manipulated events that result in a coup towards the Imperial Japanese government, nearly killed the Japanese Shogun, and the destruction of a battalion of American F-22A Raptors, as well as the elite of Imperial Japan's army.
- In Spec Ops: The Line, the CIA's goal appears to be defeating the 33rd and rescuing the civilians in Dubai. Their actual goal is to wipe out the remaining survivors by destroying the city's water supply, as part of a cover-up operation which they believe will avert a war between the US and the Middle East.
- The CIA, sometimes known as the Ministry of Love, is one of the most dangerous groups that oppose the Liberal Crime Squad.
- In Syndicate the CIA has re-invented itself as the IIA, or Independent Intelligence Agency, which is one of the seven largest crime syndicates on the planet.
- In the "Site Kilo-29" story, the CIA has been secretly rounding up scores of homeless/insane people and trapping them underground in a gigantic bunker ostensibly to see what would happen to shell-shocked survivors of a nuclear war. Years later, they've become a horde of cannibals, and now a demonic vampire-Terminator-thing from Germany has found a way in. Additionally, the CIA agents with the team brag about how they raped and murdered innocent farmers during the Cold War, as do another CIA death squad sent to kill the surviving soldiers, and it's implied another CIA squad was sent to intimidate "Sgt. Ant's" family (not to mention a mysterious "car accident" Ant keeps trying to forget...).
FBI Good examples
- There has been some controversy.
- The CIA itself plays up its reputation for ruthlessness when necessary, the better to intimidate adversaries and discourage informants from turning on or deceiving them.
- The FBI Story by Don Whitehead.
- The organization of John Ringo's Special Circumstances series, created to handle paranormal related crimes, is a department of the FBI, and are very clearly "good".
- Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: Played with. The book Hide And Seek has FBI director Josh Carpenter (a good guy) die and get temporarily replaced by Mitch Riley, a total Jerkass who wants to be the next J Edgar Hoover. Fortunately, he gets taken down and is replaced by a good guy named Elias Cummings. Elias ends being replaced by Bert Navarro, another good guy. Eventually, a man named Yantzy becomes FBI director, and he is apparently a Noble Bigot with a Badge.
Live Action TV
- The F.B.I. (1965-1974). Based on actual case histories.
- Twin Peaks, with Special Agent Dale Cooper.
- The X-Files, but only on the agent level. Further up the chain gets a little kinky when the Cigarette Smoking Man gets involved. Additionally, in a season one episode "Young at Heart", Mulder identifies a bad guy as a CIA agent from a distance. Many viewers assumed that this agent was actually the Cigarette-Smoking Man, but in reality his actor William B. Davis was cast as an anonymous CIA agent, not the actual CSM (the show often cast the same actor as two different characters, sometimes in the same season).
- Season 7 of 24, barring the few inevitable Moles.
- Criminal Minds
- Although there was that one episode where the murderer turned out to be a rogue agent.
- Veronica Mars, inasmuch as she sought an internship with the FBI in Season 3 and in the planned fourth season, she would have become an FBI agent.
- Monk, although usually just barely played straight. Although they do serve justice, the FBI's portrayal on the show is often shown to not be too good. For instance, in the episode Mr. Monk Meets the Godfather, an FBI agent, Colmes, promises Monk that he'll reinstate Monk into the Police Force as soon as they nab the guy who massacred a mafia barbershop. However, as soon as Monk discovers who truly murdered them (well, its more like manslaughter/self-defense, as the guy was trying to steal a gumball machine as he was using it to hide some double headed pennies that he stole from U.S. Mint, but he didn't know the barbershop was actually a Mob barbershop, but still), the FBI backed out of the deal, despite putting his life on the line and all of that. Stottlemeyer's insistence that Monk not work with him indicates that this wasn't the first time Colmes did this.
- Seeley Booth of Bones fame is an FBI agent who solves murders and is most definitly a good guy.
- Fornell of NCIS may come across as gruff sometimes, and has worked at cross purposes to the main characters, but always does things for the right reasons, and has been proven to be a valuable ally to the team.
- A pair of FBI agents are Those Two Guys in Leverage; they think Parker and Hardison are also FBI agents and the team is nice enough to give them credit for a few of their jobs.
- So far Person of Interest has been fuzzy about this. The FBI has been shown to be the protagonist's enemy, but only because they honestly believe that Reese is a dangerous criminal who needs to be stopped.
- The FBI have been consistently portrayed as honest and dedicated to stopping crime, and Carter admits they are the only ones she trusts to bring down HR. Donnelly ultimately slides into Inspector Javert territory, but was never corrupt.
- FBI agent Peter Burke of White Collar is the definition of a good guy. And while there is some corruption in the show's version of the FBI, most of the main authority figures of the bureau are essentially good.
- The Vanguard Serial Crimes Unit, or VASCU, is one of the Conspiracies in Hunter: The Vigil, part of the FBI. Unlike most Hunter organizations they actually get a fair amount of respect, since they use Psychic Powers to hunt Serial Killers. Of the other governmental forces, Task Force VALKYRIE is rather inconsistent about certain monsters, especially vampires since that's where the vast majority of their funds come from, and Division Six is run entirely for the benefit of the Seers to the Throne from Mage: The Awakening.
FBI versus CIA examples
- Perfect Dark where the CIA agents are treated the same as other civilians and cannot be killed, while the FBI agents are armed and can be. In fact, it's the NSA that are depicted as villains, since they're part of The Conspiracy against the President.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with Mike Toreno who, while remaining extremely morally ambiguous, actually follows through on his offer to get Sweet out of prison.
- Green Zone has the CIA being good, trying to fight against the Department of Defense's conspiracy to kill a former Saddam regime colonel who's vital to the reconstruction of Iraq.
- The President's Analyst from 1967 inverts this trope - the renamed Central Enquiries Agency is a diverse bunch of good-natured college-educated types sympathetic to the hero, while the Federal Board of Regulation are all humorless little men in black who never question orders from their grim, opinion-driven little chief to kill the hero although the former won't hesitate, as a last resort, to kill him either.
- Burn Notice: Inverted due to Michael being ex-CIA (maybe), whereas the FBI are depicted as annoying bureaucratic buffoons (at best) and as corrupt sell-outs at worst.
- The Event appears to be playing this trope straight with Director Blake Sterling, who not only seeks to continue illegally holding nearly one hundred people in a secret Alaskan prison, but also tried to keep the president from learning about the prison and it's inmates. This is subverted with agent Simon Lee, who is implied to have leaked files on the prison to the president in order to warn people about the eponymous "Event". The people in question turn out to be aliens, and Lee turns out to be The Mole for them- however, he is still a good guy (unfortunately, the aliens as a whole are are a lot more ambiguous). As the series goes on, Sterling becomes more and more heroic, while the CIA as a whole is mixed with some being involved in a Government Conspiracy but the majority not (the resident Dark Action Girl is ex-CIA), but the FBI is pretty much in the same boat, with most examples we see heroic if antagonistic. Neither are really evil.
- In Peter Chimaera's fanfiction story Digimon 3: Predator VS Digimon, the brother of said Predator died because his ship crashed due to FBI experiments, causing the Predator to randomly fight Digimon. The story ends with the police having a dinner at Digimon's house to congratulate him for exposing the FBI.
- Subverted inverted in The Archangel Project, where the CIA is good, but the FBI agents chasing the heroine and her CIA agent ally are actually private military contractors impersonating FBI agents. The actual FBI never gets involved.
- The Sandbaggers: CIA London station chief Jeff Ross is a conspiracy theorist who beleives that the FBI is essentially a right-wing militia responsible for the assassinations of Kennedy and King.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Indy is an alumnus of the OSS (World War Two's forerunner to the CIA), and is investigated and blacklisted by FBI agents who suspect he may be a communist due to his past association with the British spy who just betrayed him to the Soviets. Indy's former OSS superior objects, deriding the FBI's paranoia and citing Indy's war record, but to no avail.
- In the short-lived CBS spy dramedy CHAOS, the heroes are CIA agents. Although they're portrayed as being at odds with the higher-ups in the agency, it's because their unorthodox tactics don't sit well with their by-the-book superiors, who view them as loose cannons.
- In most of Dale Brown's work, the CIA either doesn't appear or is portrayed relatively neutrally. The FBI, however, spend most of their time interfering with our perpetually-right heroes, going to absolutely absurd lengths in A Time For Patriots, where they blackmail and injure McLanahan's son Bradley so as to force some sort of confession out of him. This turns into something of a subtle Author Tract when you hear about Brown getting caught in a tax dodge by the FBI back in 2004 - when the negative portrayals of the FBI started.
- JAG: The CIA and other espionage agencies are evil or morally gray/grey. The FBI is portrayed as using Jurisdiction Friction to take control of the investigation and refusing to cooperate with others.
- In fact, only the JAG lawyers acts like ideal police. Everybody else is concerned with controlling the publicity.
- Detective Conan, in which the CIA is portrayed as a Well-Intentioned Extremist organization who isn't above planting The Mole into the Black Organization. This results in one CIA agent having to kill her father, another CIA agent, and the apparent murder of an FBI agent to keep the cover safe.
- In The Siege, Denzel Washington plays an FBI Agent trying to catch the terrorists the right way, while Annette Bening plays the CIA Agent who trained the terrorists, and is willing to cut any corner to stop them, feeling remorse for what she's done. (Both are still on the side of the angels, compared to Bruce Willis's army general, and even he's somewhat sympathetic.)
- FlashForward (2009) has the CIA represented by Agent Vogel, who, while being on the good side, is not above letting friends and colleagues get killed if it advances his plans.
- He also shot the man who would bring Somalia to peace.
- One of the FBI agents is The Mole for the CIA.
- In Shooter, the CIA frames Mark Wahlberg for an assassination and tries to "suicide" an FBI Agent that gets too close.
- Actually The CIA's not the one behind this Government Conspiracy , though it is implied that they have some involvement.
- In Chuck Casey (an NSA agent) is openly disdainful of the FBI, and both his and Sarah's superiors regard them as a nuisance who get in the way of their operations, at best. The few FBI agents who are seen in the series don't often come off well (they'll be lucky if they aren't Red Shirts).
- A variation in In the Line of Fire is CIA Bad, Secret Service Good. The would-be presidential assassin was trained to kill by the CIA, while the movie's heroes, headed up by Clint Eastwood, are the Secret Service.
- The Secret Service and the FBI have a rivalry in Real Life, as the USSS is tasked with protecting foreign dignitaries in the US that the FBI really wants to spy on.
- Criminal Minds had an episode where the FBI had to find a mole inside the CIA. It turned out to be the agent that asked the FBI for help.
- In the Ryanverse the CIA was initially a rather shady bunch while the FBI has always been made up entirely of straight-shooting angels who recite the constitution to their kids before going to bed. However, by the time Ryan himself takes the helm of the CIA the agency has gotten a lift in both ethics and image. Most prominent example would be Clear and Present Danger where the FBI is enlisted by the heroes to thwart the unlawful scheme involving the CIA and the President's National Security Adviser that's going downhill fast.
- In the Assignment Series by Edward S Aarons, CIA agent is portrayed heroically (though sometimes at odds other less scrupulous agents). He encounters a few FBI agents who, while not evil, are kind of jerks.
- In season four of Sons of Anarchy a federal taskforce with agents from the FBI, ATF and Department of Justice finally has enough evidence to take down an international criminal conspiracy involving the Sons, a splinter faction of the IRA and high ranking members of a Mexican drug cartel. In the very last moment the CIA reveals that it is sponsoring the cartel as a means of stabilizing the political situation in Mexico and the entire matter is dropped to the great outrage of the law enforcement agents involved. To make matters worse, an undercover FBI agent was murdered gathering the evidence.
- Played with in Mercury Rising. The film skips the CIA middlemen, pitting Bruce Willis as rogue FBI Agent Jeffries against the NSA (though they are at least portrayed as dealing with cryptography.) Ultimately, Jeffries manages to convince his colleagues of the NSA conspiracy, and the circumstances flip flop - the full might of the FBI is brought down on a rogue element within the NSA.
- Inverted in Alias, where the good guys all work for the CIA, while the FBI is involved in the Ancient Conspiracy.
- Person of Interest: One of the characters is ex-CIA who conducted illegal operations on American soil. His superior Mark Snow is still in New York, smuggling drugs and trying to hunt them down. FBI recently came into picture, trying to bring them down.
- In the Mr. Magoo movie, the agents tracking down the jewel thief are FBI and CIA, and are not above playing tricks on each other. Their collaboration starts with Jurisdiction Friction ("the CIA has no jurisdiction on American soil") and gets worse. The FBI guy tells his colleague to watch for a suspicious individual who needs a haircut, remote-guiding him until he tells him to turn around to face.. a mirror. CIA guy retaliates by placing a bug so FBI guy can listen in. He puts it inside a metal watering can, then slams the side of the can, causing horrible feedback and temporary deafness in FBI guy.
- In All the President's Men and several other movies taking place around Watergate, it is indicated that Richard Nixon intends to use the CIA to obstruct an FBI investigation. This seems to presume that the FBI is less corrupt (or at least less under his control).
- A German version of this trope also exists: The KiKa teen drama Allein gegen die Zeit features two BKA officers (Bundeskriminalamt - Federal Criminal Police Office - pretty much a German FBI) rescuing top-secret documents from the Ministry of the Interior's archives from two shadowy figures. They later get suspected of being part of the conspiracy when it turns out they just stole files from investigating BND agents (Bundesnachrichtendienst - Federal Intelligence Service - a stand-in for the CIA).
- The Swedish cop show Arne Dahl had an extreme example, with a CIA agent who was also a serial murderer torturing and killing members of a human rights group investigating American torture in Iraq, and trying to frame them as terrorists. A heroic FBI agent helped the Swedish regular characters hunt him down and rescue the human rights group and innocent Iraqis from a back-up CIA death squad.
- Grand Theft Auto V: The FIB and IAA(the inuniverse stand-ins for the FBI and CIA respectively) are both portrayed as corrupt organizations with perhaps the most irresponsible inter-service rivalry in the history of fiction. The FIB forces the protagonists to commit various crimes that result in untold mayhem and destruction to thwart a plot by the IAA to allow a terrorist attack on US soil so they can get more funding to prevent terrorist attacks, though it should be noted that aside from their willingness to use the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, which the FIB tops with Cold-Blooded Torture, the only evidence we really have for IAA wrongdoing comes from the mouths of the very corrupt FIB agents that are working against them.