If it’s on TV then…

Some of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked over the years concern FBI-related TV and movies. Just how real are they? Well, it depends. A documentary? Possibly. A true crime show? Maybe more or less. Jack Bauer and 24? Sorry, pure fiction. Blacklist? Nope, also fiction, but James Spader’s so cool, does anyone care? As for aliens, alternative universes or weird science, well, let’s just say I never found a hint of either an X-file or a parallel reality in 20 years. And BAU agents also don’t have their own jet or breach suspects’ doors ala Criminal Minds. Again, sorry.

Let’s face it, entertainment media, whether in the form of TV, movie, play or novel is primarily meant to, well, entertain, not inform. That means reality stretching situations complete with twists, impossible threats, optional legal adherence, and lots of action. Legal standards (like probable cause) are often adjusted to fit the script. Some shows might employ a legal/law enforcement consultant or advisor, but a great deal of literary license might still be necessary to keep the show moving. Real investigations can be just too slow for entertainment. Why? Well, one reason is that a real case might involve a host of administrative tasks which are not exactly, yawn, very edge of your seat stuff. Zzzz.

Reality Bites and So Does the Paperwork

Oh sorry, dozed-off there. Where was I? Right. One of the biggest differences between fantasy and reality? Paperwork. Even digitized, it’s still paperwork. I always thought the biggest unexplained phenomenon on the X-files was the lack of paperwork Mulder and Scully ever did!

Oh come on, you say, it can’t be that bad, right? You’re the FBI! Ha! Need to travel? Fill out your travel request. Want to get reimbursed? Fill out the voucher with all receipts. Need to sign-in evidence? Take out evidence? Transfer evidence? Ask for forensic help for a case or a lab report from Quantico? Document an interview? Forms and Paperwork. Conduct an arrest or search? Draft the affidavit and expect to re-draft it several times once the chain of command and the local US Attorneys Office (USAO) get a hold of it. Paperwork. Paperwork. No one is immune. Everyone has to document before, during, and after anything. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also an abundance of purely administrative tasking such as trainings, certifications, inspections, and reviews.

All of it is very time consuming and while some may be very necessary, one thing is true: it’s all boring. If Mulder and Scully had to do, in real-time, the actual documentation for all their travel, searches, arrests, and reports, the X-files would’ve been a snooze-fest instead of the groundbreaking program it was. And that goes for any of the shows where the FBI is featured. I mean, who wants to watch an hour of Feds sitting in front of computers typing? No one. And no, I’m not talking about the super cool data mining/surveillance hacking computers of a Garcia (Criminal Minds) or Aram (Blacklist). Nope, I mean the normal kind of computer made for word processing and lots of administrative input.

Real Investigations: Longer than a Commercial Break

In most investigation-related movies, TV programs, and books (including mine), the investigation often begins and ends in a relatively short time. This is usually done to maintain an engaging pace and/or meet time constraints. But in truth, as mentioned above, real investigations can take a looonnnggg time. Administrative paperwork is just one of the reasons.

Forensics, Lab Work and Analysis

Another reason is that, unlike Hollywood, lab results of any kind (DNA, ballistics, fingerprints, cyber, handwriting, etc.) can take weeks or months depending on the backlog, not merely hours. A kidnapping or terrorism case or something similar can get expedited, but a non-emergency fraud or corruption case with no real deadline? Get in line. This is NOT meant as a criticism of forensic labs, by the way, not at all. Labs, even the one at Quantico, are just trying to keep up with the overload of demands and expectations coming at them from every direction. Forensic lab backlog is just another instance of reality over fantasy. And besides backlog, some tests just take time, far more than a commercial break.

Once the lab results come back there is still a need for analysis and probably further investigation. Even a case with few lab forensics, such as a document-heavy white collar case, might require months to analyze the records and understand the criminal scheme. Long investigations, like paperwork, do not make for good television. Short, quick resolutions, with clues or leads showing themselves rather too quickly, are much more exciting, but also not very realistic.


In addition to the wrongful impression that most investigations can be completed in a weekend, there is also the expectation that warrants, search or arrest, can be had in minutes. “I’ll get the warrant” is a common statement on TV and the warrant usually appears after the next break. But it really isn’t that easy most of the time. Warrants require “probable cause”. Obtaining the probable cause for a search/arrest warrant can take weeks, months or even years in a complex case.

Can a warrant ever be obtained quickly? Absolutely. In reactive cases such as homicides, assaults, robberies, kidnappings, terrorism or other similar cases where active leads exist and a time element is involved, probable cause can be developed in a relatively short amount of time. But for most FBI investigations, where the cases are considered responsive or historical, it can be much longer.

Still Pretty Cool

Even without all the bells and whistles displayed in TV, screenplays, and novels, the FBI of today is still pretty cool. Really. In this FBI Life blog I hope to give a flavor of that in various short “allowable” ways (can’t share everything of course) that may still prove of some interest. Yeah, I’m retired and the FBI will change as the years go on, but not the basics. So grab your credentials and badge and buckle-up. Even without a BAU jet, it should still be quite a ride. And who knows, maybe the truth really is out there!


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