The Top 10 Greatest FBI FAILs Of All Time

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a reputation for being one of the most infallible government agencies in the country. They've become a symbol of success and secrecy in both domestic and international crime and continue to prove their skills on a daily basis. But everyone makes mistakes. This list of notorious FBI fails proves that pretty conclusively.

It's not easy finding the top FBI fails in the agency's history because, obviously, some of these incidents are embarrassing and have been swept under the rug as much as possible. Nonetheless, we put on our windbreakers and investigated. Here are 10 shining examples of failure in the FBI.

  • 1

    Conspicuous SSID Fail

    A tragedy of Columbine proportions was narrowly avoided as Tampa police detained angsty 17-year-old Jared Michael Cano before he was able to set off a bomb on some of his classmates.

    There was a multitude of evidence against this kid's mental stability long before his bust, including several catch-and-releases in which Jared was charged with fire-arm burglary, felony-level weapons offenses, grand larceny, and several misdemeanor drug crimes. In it's infinite wisdom, Florida decided to take little or no action and dismissed most of the cases, even as his Facebook page depicted him holding a machete and quoting the nihilistic movie Law Abiding Citizen, "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." As Florida's credo states, "Boys will be boys."

    Now, I have to give the FBI some credit for stepping in and not allowing Cano to kill anyone. Following a confidential informant's tip, the authorities searched Jared's room and found a wealth of bomb making materials and a journal which included minute-by-minute plans of how he was going to out-casualty any other school massacre, as well as some evil, evil marijuana.

    Any credit the FBI earned is quickly face-palmed away, however, after reading Cano's Facebook status update only a few days prior to the raid, "The weirdest thing happened today... when my homie was trying to connect to a wireless network the connections list came up and one of them was called: FBI_SURVEILLANCE_VAN… It was weird..." For a government agency that's built its sterling reputation on being secretive, that's pretty bad.

    How lucky that Cano didn't absorb any deduction skills in his no-doubt high quality Florida education and move his plan of mayhem forward before he was caught. This FBI fail probably would have resulted in the biggest tragedy ever caused from not hiding a SSID. Well, that and the time I forgot to secure my own wireless network and my neighbors started torrenting. That was just awful.

  • 2

    The Case of Mistaken Whiteys

    In a rare, ratings-inducing move, the FBI asked Germany's longest-running crime show Aktenzeichen XY for help in tracking down former mafioso James "Whitey" Bulger by broadcasting some supposedly recent photos of Bulger and his girlfriend, believed to be on the lam in Europe some time in 2008. What they didn't do was check these photos for accuracy.

    Taken by a tourist in Italy the previous year, the photo featured an elderly couple that everyone in the FBI pretty much agreed resembled the infamous gangster and his girlfriend. Shown alongside some vintage pictures, they warned Bulger was wanted in connection with as many as 19 murders and "the couple may be armed and is extremely dangerous."

    When calls started flooding the German airwaves with reported sightings of this "extremely dangerous" couple, the FBI was no doubt overjoyed about their new leads and probable vacation time in Germany. However, one call squashed all hopes of wearing lederhosen and eating bratwurst forever when it was revealed that the photo the FBI chose to broadcast was of his parents, nonthreatening retirees who were shocked to find themselves the center of an international manhunt.

    The FBI waited five long days to remove the pictures from it's website, perplexed over which photo to use next because all old people look the same.

    Two months ago, Whitey was arrested at his home in Santa Monica, and it is still unknown whether he and his girlfriend were even overseas at the time of the broadcast.
  • 3

    Search, Seizure, and Surrender

    Search, Seizure, and Surrender
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Protip: When raiding someone's house, don't forget those important classified documents and surveillance photos you came in with.

    In September 2010, the FBI did just that while ransacking the home of Mick Kelly and his partner, Linden Gawboy. The FBI made such a mess for Kelly, an outspoken political activist and member of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, that it took almost seven months for the confidential government operations order to be discovered amongst the thousands of disarrayed pages of the couple's personal effects.

    The operations order detailed the plan for the raid, photographs, and potential interview questions for Kelly and other activists deemed "dangerous" by the FBI, primarily due to suspected socialist ties. Of the nature of the questions, Kelly said they conveyed a "disturbingly odd 1950s red scare tone."

    When asked how the FBI would be so incompetent as to leave critical internal documents behind while seizing half a household, and then not even realize what had happened until seven months later when the documents were posted online, FBI Special Agent Steve Warfield refused to comment.

  • 4

    Today's FBI. It's for you.

    The FBI is so committed to diversity in it's workforce that even its employment web site has compiled a multitude of different ethnicities to prove how multicultural it is. Their "American Indian/Native Alaskan" initiative, however, was a little lacking.

    In 2009, that page featured a picture of former special agent Elizabeth Morris, who alleges that part of the reason she lost her job with the Bureau was filing a complaint of workplace prejudice. She claims she was relieved from her position after she brought to light some unethical practices made by another agent and against her supervisor, who made racially insensitive remarks. Oh the irony!

    And it wasn't like this just happened and they were a little slow on taking down the snapshot. No, her photo was featured in 2009, a full TWO YEARS after she was fired for allegedly being the victim of the very behavior the FBI hoped to disassociate themselves with.

    Apparently they had trouble choosing a photo to represent the ethnic background, because they thought all American Indians/Native Alaskans looked the same.
  • 5


    Photo: flickr / CC0

    Sure, we've all forgotten to pay a bill here and there. You pay the late fee, maybe go without lights for a few weeks; no big deal, right? It's cool...unless you're an agency of the American government in charge of monitoring the country's security and you get the lines cut on your primary means of surveillance. Then, yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

    In 2008, the FBI had their phone service shut down during a national security investigation and missed countless other opportunities to collect key evidence because they failed to pay their phone bills in a timely manner.

    According to a report by the Justice Department, "We analyzed 990 telecommunication surveillance payments made by five field divisions, and found that over half of these payments were not made on time." If, that is, they were paid at all. One primary carrier sent a list detailing $66k in unpaid bills resulting from surveillance activity. know you're in a financial crisis when even the government's calling collect.
  • 6

    He's Wearing a (Non-functioning) Wire!

    He's Wearing a (Non-functioning) Wire!
    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    There are two things you'd expect an undercover FBI agent posing as an assassin to do during the middle of a sting: (1) face the man asking you to put a bullet in someone's head so your spy camera can get a clear picture, and (2) make sure you have functioning audio equipment.

    The FBI branch in Denver, Colorado garners a place on this list for failing not one, but BOTH of these common sense covert practices. Brooks Kellogg was accused last year of trying to hire a hit man to murder a former coworker who sued him for $2.5 million, but almost got off the hook because the FBI admitted to using a video camera that didn't record audio and captured nothing of visual relevance.

    Add that to the fact that the witness they chose to hinge their entire case on was a convicted felon and mistress and you have a plot worthy of only the finest Law and Order episode.

    After showing Kellogg a photo of his ex-business partner, the undercover agent allegedly told Kellogg, "You're the customer here," and "You want him killed?" Ugh. With dialogue of this caliber, maybe they should shoot for only the finest episode of NCIS.