With a budget of more than $60 billion a year, the U.S. Intelligence Community is a behemoth of agencies, offices, and capabilities. The Intelligence Community is the nation’s first line of defense, ensuring that policymakers are promptly aware of threats against U.S. national security. But which agency spies better?
The Two Giants of the Intelligence Community
Usually, when someone talks about the U.S. Intelligence Community, two agencies come to mind: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Both have been around for a while, spearheading different aspects of America’s intelligence efforts. The agencies, however, approach the intelligence game through different paths. While these paths may converge from time to time, for the most part, each is in a league of its own.
The CIA is America’s primary Human Intelligence (HUMINT) collection agency. It has four missions: collect foreign intelligence, provide objective analysis, conduct covert action, and help safeguard American secrets (counterintelligence). The CIA is composed of five directorates (Directorate of Analysis, Directorate of Operations, Directorate of Science and Technology, Directorate of Support, Directorate of Digital Innovation) but operates under mission centers, which bring officers together from across the directorates to tackle issues.
For example, the Russia Mission Center uses operations officers from the Directorate of Operations to collect HUMINT by recruiting spies and agents. The information that these assets produce then gets poured over by analysts from the Directorate of Analysis before they find their way to the “customers,” which can range from the President, through the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), to the Secretary of Defence, to the Director of the FBI.
The NSA is America’s dedicated cryptologic organization that specializes in intercepting foreign Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) but also in protecting U.S. information systems. According to the NSA, the agency is the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States and probably the world. They also employ a large, dedicated cadre of foreign language analysts.
Created in 1952, the NSA is both part of the Department of Defense and a member of the Intelligence Community. In this dual-hatted role, the NSA serves customers from across the government, including the military, policymakers, other elements of the intelligence community, and even key international allies, such as the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom).
It is important to highlight that both the NSA and CIA, and indeed the whole Intelligence community, inform policy, but they don’t make it. Their intelligence enables policymakers to make better decisions—they don’t make the decisions themselves. Nowadays, covert action programs, such as regime change in a hostile country or arming a rebel group, aren’t run by some rogue CIA officers from an innocuous carpet store in Arlington, but are approved by the President and funded by Congress through the Intelligence Community’s annual budget.
HUMINT vs SIGINT
Human Intelligence (HUMINT) is one of those terms you may hear tossed around, but if you’re not already familiar with it, you may just gloss over it as you do with any number of seemingly meaningless military acronyms. The truth, however, is that HUMINT is a fundamental building block of any national defense strategy, and in many ways, is the oldest and longest-standing form of espionage.
To a certain extent, HUMINT intelligence is closer to the pop-culture idea we have about spies than SIGINT might be, but more often than not, it doesn’t come with a license to kill. Intelligence officers may gather HUMINT through direct engagement with sources, or through leveraging local assets (people) to directly gather information for them. Everything from friendly conversation to interrogation can be seen as a means to gather Human Intelligence. HUMINT might look like any of these methods of collecting information:
- Clandestine acquisition of photography, documents, and other material
- Overt collection by people overseas
- Debriefing of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens who travel abroad
- Official contacts with foreign governments
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), on the other hand, is the interception of the communications of enemy or competitor state and non-state actors. From telephone landlines, to cellular calls, to underwater communication cables, to encrypted high-frequency messages, the NSA intercepts them all.
The NSA conducts both strategic and tactical SIGINT collection. The former would be the tapping of a Chinese communications node, whereas the latter would be developing SIGINT technology to track and monitor a terrorist cell in order to provide intelligence to a special operations task force that would order a raid.
The First Line of Defence: The U.S. Intelligence Community
The United States Intelligence Community was formed on December 4, 1981, and is an umbrella organization comprised of 17 separate U.S. government agencies and offices. These all work both separately and together to conduct intelligence activities in support of U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives. Member organizations include intelligence agencies, military intelligence units and commands, and civilian intelligence offices found within the federal government’s executive departments. This is all overseen by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), headed by the Director of National Intelligence, and reports directly to the President of the United States.
The 17 Intelligence Community member organizations include two independent agencies (who do not fall within a department), seven offices that fall within other departments, and eight Department of Defense elements. Let’s see who they are.
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence of the Department of Energy (DOE)
- Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- US Coast Guard Intelligence
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Intelligence Branch
- Office of National Security Intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the Department of State
- Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of the Treasury
- Defense Intelligence Agency
- National Security Agency (NSA)/Central Security Service (CSS)
- National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA)
- National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)
- Air Force Intelligence
- Army Intelligence and Security Command
- Naval Intelligence
- Marine Corps Intelligence Activity