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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 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.
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. (See Wikipedia on the NSA in popular culture.) While initially this was likely a result of the agency's notorious secrecy, the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden in late 2013 revealed that since 2001 they had indeed been engaged in wholesale spying on just about everyone; it seems more than likely that they will become the go-to evil agency in future works.
CIA Evil examples
Anime and Manga
- In El Cazador de la Bruja, CIA carries out a secret project to create Child Soldiers with Psychic Powers, then murders everyone involved in it when it fails.
- 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
- Similarly 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.
- Jason Bourne.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Live Action TV
- 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.
- 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".
- 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 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 Snake Eater is a CIA agent, but is also a good guy... At first.
- Played completely straight in Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops.
- 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, 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.
- Inverted in 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.
- 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.
- Inverted in 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.
- The "Weird Al" Yankovic song Party in the CIA pokes fun at all of the controversial activities done or allegedly done by the CIA.
- 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
- In Dog Day Afternoon the FBI agents expertly handle the situation by capturing one bank robber, killing the other and rescuing the hostages unharmed.
- In The Silence of the Lambs, FBI agent trainee Clarice Starling kills Buffalo Bill and rescues the Senator's daughter.
- Public Enemies. The FBI is doing everything they can do to catch John Dillinger. Unfortunately, they aren't that all pure and white, but they're better than the alternative side.
- The Rock: Played straight with Paxton and Goodspeed, Averted with Womack.
- Averted in Die Hard, where the two FBI agents are jerkasses who care nothing for the lives of the hostages and are only concerned with killing the terrorists.
- 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.
- In a Season 1 episode, Mulder identifies the CSM as a CIA agent from a distance.
- 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 hasonly shown up in one episode and were basically Punch Clock Heros just doing their job, more neutral than actually 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 Agent Norman Jayden from Heavy Rain is pretty much the only By-The-Book Cop in the entire story.
- FBI Agent Francis York Morgan from Deadly Premonition is severely schizophrenic and has an appalling grip on reality, but he's also a charming eccentric with savant-level talent for criminal profiling and an unerring sense of justice. The FBI itself seems to pay him extremely well for even the most banal activities and keeps quite a loose leash on him despite his frequently outlandish behaviour, but we might have York's perspective to blame for that.
- Green Zone has the CIA being good, trying to fight against the Department of Defense's conspiracy to kill a former Saddam regime colonel.
- 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.
FBI versus CIA examples
- 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.
- The Live Action Adaptation of Mr. Magoo featured feuding FBI and CIA agents on the same case; both were portrayed as jerks.
- 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.)
- Flash Forward 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.
- He also shot the man who would bring Somalia to peace.
- In Shooter, the CIA frames Mark Wahlberg for an assassination and tries to "suicide" an FBI Agent that gets too close.
- 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 CIA scheme that's going downhill fast.
- Of course, the scheme wasn't unlawful from the CIA's perspective. They had presidential orders to do it, signed by the National Security Adviser. The crime came from the fact that the president and the NSA did not tell Congress that they had given said order to the CIA. As Ryan phrased it, the murders only became murders retroactively when something extraneous to the murder itself did not occur. He considered this to be seriously screwed up (and was probably justified in that belief).
- Not to mention that Bob Ritter does have his Blood Knight moments...
- Marathon Man averts this somewhat, in that it is said to be "The Division," a lesser-known organization in between the FBI and CIA (no, not the NSA), that handles the "dirty business".
- 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.