It is one of the perverse ironies of our age that the popular interest in serial killers was driven, in part, by the FBI. The Bureau, in a real sense, served as a press agent for these perverse monsters.
The serial killer “menace” was hyped by the FBI at a time when its mission was shrinking and its reputation was in tatters. At just that moment, the FBI discovered a new threat to America and its children.
As the FBI told it, dozens, maybe over a hundred, relentless killers roamed our highways and stalked our neighborhoods. They crossed state lines which made it almost impossible for local police to stop them. They were smart amd could evade conventional police work.
Fortunately, America had an organization that was ready, willing, and able to take on this scourge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation could operate nationally, their labs were cutting edge, their computers would make linkage blindness a thing of the past.
Best of all, they even had an elite cadre – the Behavioral Science Unit – that had made a special study of this type of criminal. The Bureau, it seemed, was the only law enforcement agency in the country with serial killer experts.
As Phillip Jenkins noted “the FBI was in effect making a power grab, claiming jurisdiction over crimes which were beyond its legal scope, and this could only be achieved by presenting the offenders as itinerant, and therefore violating state boundaries.” In doing so they were doing what they had always done. In the 1930s it was “automobile bandits” and kidnappers. Then Nazi spies, then Russian spies.
Times changed but the song remained the same. The FBI was always ready to hype any menace and jump on any bandwagon if that led to bigger budgets and more power for the Bureau.
Quite literally the FBI wrote the template for the growth of the administrative state. Hoover and the DOJ saw the war on John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd as a means of promoting the New Deal and the benefits of federal power.
The War on Crime would become a centerpiece of Roosevelt's push to centralize many facets of American government. It would be a focal point of his State of the Union Address in January. Thus a little known bureau of the Justic Department became a cutting edge of Roosevelt's New Deal policies. If Hoover and his neophyte agents could defeat "name brand" gangsters, it would be immediate and tangible evidence of the new Deal's worth.
The image of the serial killer that the Feds crafted in the 1980s was adopted by fiction writers and journalists alike. This is not surprising; public relations and image management have always been a core competence of the FBI. It may be the thing it does best.
Journalists writing against deadline needed experts and statistics to write their stories. The FBI had a near monopoly on both. In the 1980s and 1990s there were almost no outside experts who could challenge the official orthodoxy.
"A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day."
--Scott Shane (New York Times reporter)
For novelists and screenwriters like Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs), the Bureau offered access, a chance to add verisimilitude to stories, the opportunity to suggest that a work of the imagination was laden with inside dope and closely-held secrets. Most importantly, the “mindhunters” of the BSU had already crafted their histories in a fiction-friendly form.
This created an odd, even perverse dynamic. The BSU could make itself look good by exaggerating the skill, cunning, and intelligence of the criminal.
The experts who gained the widest acceptance did so not because of their academic credentials, but because of their personal narratives of traveling to the heart of darkness that is the mind of the 'monster among us'. This is the language of shamanism rather than psychology.
It takes a special kind of hero to catch catch genius criminals like Hannibal Lector....
Only a few brave souls have dared to point out several obvious but often ignored facts.
Like the fact that the FBI has an abysmal record catching actual serial killers. Or even identifying that a serial killer is at work. Or that most serial killers do not roam across state lines but instead operate close to home.
The killers, when finally caught, never live up to the FBI-created image. BTK was evil but no genius and Samuel Little was a small time criminal.
The press is rarely interested for more than a day when a criminal profile turns out to be radically wrong. (Remember the wild goose chase for a white man in a white van during the DC sniper spree?)
A reporter on the FBI beat runs great risks delving into these sorts of questions. Life is easier if the FBI takes your calls.
In 1992 Robert Ressler, one of the first of the FBI's “Mindhunters” warned America that the serial killer menace would turn our streets into a real life “Clockwork Orange”. When, instead, murder rates fell for over two decades, he was never asked to explain his failed prediction. It wasn't as if the press did not have the opportunity-- he gave interviews as he toured to promote his string of books on his heroic fight against human monsters.
FBI profilers are still treated as uniquely skilled experts even though their record in catching actual serial killers is weak. Luck still plays a larger role than FBI expertise. DNA has been the game changer not the pseudoscience of the BSU.
Thus, the press becomes an enabler of the bureaucracy. It eagerly hypes the panics that lead to large budget and more laws. It is much less interested in assessing the performance of the agencies on an on-going basis. The watchdog can be turned into a lap dog with a little access and a good narrative.
Hoover blazed a trail, not just for the FBI but for all the ambitious federal bureaucrats who came after him.
UPDATE (12/5/22): There is a new biography of Hoover out. Eli Lake interviewed the autho for his podcast. The author highlights that Hoover's FBI was the avatar for the ideal of progressivism: power in the hands of dispassionate experts who were beyond the control of politicians.
Hoover believed in the administrative state—in the power of independent bureaucrats.
The New Criterion has a lengthy and insightful review of the book: