The Feds. G-Men. The Bureau. The Federal Bureau of Investigation holds a special place in the public imagination and commands a certain respect that other intelligence agencies might envy. Where the CIA has yet to recover from the “rogue elephant” allegations of the 1970’s, and the NSA—well, there are few jobs more challenging today than NSA Public Relations—the FBI has managed to navigate some very difficult missteps without losing much in the way of public esteem. Consider that with election season upon us, television commercials and direct mailings for candidates for sheriff—especially of small counties or towns—will invariably include the bullet point “Trained at the FBI National Academy” if it is applicable. Likewise, when the municipal paper announces that the FBI has stepped in to handle a local crime, that investigation is suddenly seen as serious business.

For an agency that’s secret by design, the FBI holds great significance in American culture. All of this—the PR, the local police chief advertising his Quantico training, the vivid public imaginings—is by design, and the result of the work of J. Edgar Hoover, a man whose public esteem has perhaps not fared as well as his agency. And it is likely that he would be (reluctantly) OK with that. While he was alive, the image of the Bureau was always the most important thing.


The FBI is the oldest of the “three-letter-agencies” of the intelligence community, so named for the number of letters in their abbreviations. (Other such agencies include the CIA, the NSA, and the NGA, the latter of which is cheating by way of a hyphen; NGA is short for National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.) Established as the Bureau of Investigation in 1908 to conduct interstate law enforcement, the BI drew its first members from the United States Secret Service, one of the few reliable and well-trained investigative agencies in government. Thirty years later, the Bureau’s name changed, and its function expanded greatly.

Everyone knows the G-Man” look—a federal agent wearing a dark suit and moving with a sense of purpose. It was first seen in G-Men, the 1935 James Cagney film, and continued through The X-Files, the television series 60 years later. That image was forged in 1924, when J. Edgar Hoover, a Justice Department lawyer and administrator, took the helm of the newly minted Federal Bureau of Investigation. He set to work immediately imposing a rigorous culture of uniformity in procedure, policy, and mental and physical appearance on his agents. As Wesley Swearingen, a special agent from the earliest days of the Bureau, described of the day he was handed his credentials and gold badge: “I glanced around the room at the men. We were all white Anglo-Saxons. Except for the difference in ages and body sizes we all looked as if we had come from one mold.” They were considered “Mr. Hoover’s personal representatives,” and were given a strict dress code and set of grooming standards that, at least in the collective imagination of popular culture, continue to this day. Wrote Swearingen, “Mr. Hoover expects each of his Special Agents to wear a dark business suit, a white shirt, a dark conservative tie, dark socks, and black shoes. Argyle socks and colored socks are strictly forbidden…. We were to hear about Hoover’s dress code hundreds of times over the years.”

Hoover wasn’t building a bureaucracy, or even a police agency. He was building what in many ways was an elite army in law enforcement, and he expected discipline in appearance to suffuse the Bureau’s ethic and attention to detail. Though Hoover had never served in the armed forces in any meaningful way, this is in keeping with a recognized military tradition.1 General George Patton, for example, an obsessive of military dress and bearing, operated with a similar philosophy, observing an almost one-to-one correlation between discipline and pride in dress and discipline and pride in service. In his diary, he noted that such discipline in appearance bolstered his performance as a leader of men. “I have to exude confidence I don’t feel every minute.”


Hoover, ever aware of the preventable public relations disasters that preceded him at the BI, was obsessed with maintaining the public image of the Bureau.2 To deter members of Congress from investigating the Bureau and thus dredging up potential negative press, he shied away from partisan issues and avoided official investigations of representatives. At the same time, he is generally thought to have kept tabs on embarrassing information he learned about them. (This held members of Congress to their end of the unspoken immunity deal.) Meanwhile, he focused the Bureau’s increasingly formidable resources on high-profile criminals, garnering enviable headlines and Hollywood attention.

Hoover founded the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia, and embraced a rigorous forensic and scientific methodology in criminal investigations. “Before science,” said Hoover, “all, must fall, including the power of crime.” Fingerprinting, crime laboratories, and uniform national crime statistics were key to the Bureau’s new image of strict professionalism. Hoover’s early career as a clerk for the Library of Congress, by which he put himself through night school at George Washington University, would come to serve the Bureau. Hoover employed a modified version of the Dewey Decimal for internal FBI case filing. He also possessed an essential understanding of what would later become known as operations security, or OPSEC, and of maintaining the integrity of secrets and sensitive documents. Agents were permitted to check out files only as needed, after logging the transaction and only with permission of a Special Agent in Charge.


To alleviate turf wars with local law enforcement—a surefire way to lose support at the grassroots level—he shared Bureau resources with small-town police departments, and established an intimate relationship with the press. Journalist and Hoover confidante Rex Collier invented the “FBI formula” for press reporting, which, according to FBI historian Richard Gid Powers, “said the real story in every FBI case was the entire FBI organization, fueled by science and teamwork, coordinated and led by J. Edgar Hoover, and never an individual agent, was the true hero in every FBI case.” Though some criticized Hoover’s obsession with publicity, the early, carefully manicured public image of the Bureau is crucial to understanding the longevity and success of J. Edgar Hoover’s career and of the FBI’s staying power. It is no exaggeration to say Hoover became an icon and national hero, featuring heroically in films and comic books of his day. (Don’t expect James Clapper, for example, to appear alongside Spider-Man anytime soon.)

The aura of those early years would act as a force field throughout his tenure. The power Hoover amassed was without precedent in American history, and would never be rivaled. While Hoover’s enemies would later explain that his trove of so-called “secret files” repelled any attempt at reining in the director, it was Hoover’s untouchable celebrity that kept his harshest critics in Congress at bay. (N.b.: Hoover’s personal files were likely real, but the excessive nature of their contents is more-often-than-not imagined—though nobody really knows for sure. Helen Gandy, Hoover’s secretary for 54 years, destroyed the “personal” files—none of which were of an “official” nature—immediately after learning of her boss’s death.)

With a steady hand at the tiller for nearly fifty years, the Bureau managed to sidestep many of the land mines such organizations as the CIA marched through headlong during the tumultuous Vietnam years. On inertia alone, the FBI emerged from the Year of Intelligence (1975, three years after Hoover’s death, and during which the Church and Pike committee hearings ripped away the veil of the intelligence community) with its image largely intact. Hoover’s presence also prevented the kind of schizophrenic leadership that plagued the early decades of the CIA and National Security Agency. Though the FBI would make notorious missteps in leadership after his death (to say nothing of missteps in word and deed during his lifetime), the foundation established by Hoover persists to this day.

* Hoover registered for the draft in 1917, but as the sole caretaker for his mother, was exempted from service. He would later receive a direct commission in the U.S. Army Reserve as a means of facilitating interaction between the FBI and military intelligence.

* Even his name was part of that image. Another John Edgar Hoover had been discovered writing hot checks. Thus “J. Edgar” Hoover was born.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at