Writers in the Storm

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March 9, 2015

Writing Spies: Which Agency Does What to Who?

Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Wiki 2015 March US_Intelligence_Community_Logo_blueOne of the most common mistakes in fiction is confusing which intelligence agencies have the power to do what to whom and where they have the authority to do it. Today, we want to clear up that confusion.

While there are numerous military and civilian intelligence agencies, we’ll focus on four of the biggest branches, which are also the ones most commonly assigned imaginative extracurricular activities by fiction authors – the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA” or “Company”), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), and the National Security Agency/Central Security Service (“NSA/CSS” or “NSA”).


Wiki 2015 Mar CIA Logo

Central Intelligence Agency


To collect, assess, and disseminate foreign intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency is and always was what Congress thought it was creating for the first time with the DHS.

Where the CIA operates:

Exclusively on foreign soil.

Entire novel and TV series are premised on the notion that the CIA conducts elaborate surveillance and investigations of American citizens on American soil. (i.e. Homeland and Burn Notice). No. Even in the case of an internal investigation, such as the investigation of traitor Aldrich Ames, the agency must contact the FBI and/or the DHS—depending on the foreigner’s activities—as soon as surveillance on American soil is involved.

What the CIA is authorized to do:

The CIA is authorized to gather intelligence on foreign countries and foreign individuals outside of the US. It has its own employees, but it can also employ contractors and foreigners. Any combination of employees (a.k.a. blue badgers), contractors (a.k.a. green badgers), or foreign agents can be involved in an operation.

Power to arrest:

The CIA does not have the authority to arrest anyone. They do at times detain foreigners in the process of covert actions, but you didn’t hear that from us. The CIA never arrests people for the purpose of prosecution.

To arrest someone on foreign soil for the purpose of prosecution, the CIA cooperates with the FBI, who must in turn cooperate with the host country.


Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured. Image by US govt., public domain.

Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured.
Image by US govt., public domain.


An example of this interaction is the arrest of the first World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, in Islamabad, Pakistan. A US State Department employee found the relevant lead by passing out thousands of matchbooks with a modest reward offer printed on the covers. He turned over the information to the CIA, which located Yousef and kept him under surveillance until an FBI team could arrive in Pakistan. The FBI executed a raid while the Islamabad Police waited outside the building. When the FBI brought Yousef out, the Islamabad Police performed the arrest and immediately turned him back to the FBI team to be escorted to New York for formal prosecution.


The CIA reports to the National Intelligence Director, who reports to the president. The agency is overseen by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. As much as Congress and the president disavow their knowledge of CIA activities at times, the CIA has never operated without oversight from Congress and the White House.


Wiki 2015 Mar FBI Logo


Federal Bureau of Investigation


The FBI was originally the federal government’s investigative agency. Now, the FBI investigates both criminal and terrorist activities and has offices in several overseas US embassies.

Official priorities listed at the FBI website:

  1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack
  2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage
  3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes
  4. Combat public corruption at all levels
  5. Protect civil rights
  6. Combat transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises
  7. Combat major white-collar crime
  8. Combat significant violent crime
  9. Support federal, state, local and international partners
  10. Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission

Unofficially, the FBI is tasked with keeping suit manufacturers in business.


Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.

Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.


Where the FBI operates:

The FBI operates inside the US as both an investigative and a law enforcement agency. Outside of the US, the FBI assists foreign governments in investigations and conducts investigations of crimes against Americans and American installations. It also acts as a liaison to foreign law enforcement agencies.

What the FBI is authorized to do:

The FBI is authorized to conduct law enforcement and surveillance inside the US. Outside the US, it relies on the CIA for surveillance and must obtain the permission and cooperation of foreign governments for any US law enforcement activities on their territory.

Power to arrest:

The FBI arrests people inside America and, with the cooperation of foreign governments, takes criminals abroad into custody.


The FBI answers to the Department of Justice. The president can and does speak directly to the bureau, and the attorney general and various congressional committees provide oversight.


Wiki 2015 Mar DHS Logo


Department of Homeland Security


We’re not sure they know, and if they do know, they’re not admitting it.

Law prevented the FBI and CIA from operating effectively to avert terrorism in the US in that the bureau and the agency weren’t allowed to share most of their information with each other. This could have been fixed with a few changes in law.

However, Congress, never one to do for a dollar what could be done for $38 billion dollars, created the DHS. Their intent in establishing the DHS was to set up an agency that could work with itself in order to prevent the next 9/11. Its original core mission was counter-intelligence in order to ensure a homeland that is safe and secure, whatever that means.

The DHS is still creating itself and being created by outside forces such as Congress and any given president. Since its inception, the department has grown to include FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, ICE, Border Patrol, TSA, and more.


TSA agents in Boston. Image by DHS, public domain.

TSA agents in Boston.
Image by DHS, public domain.


Where the DHS operates:

DHS operates both inside the US and outside the US, supposedly with the cooperation of the CIA. That boundary is a grey area that has never quite been defined.

What the DHS can do:

The DHS can order surveillance on anyone inside the US for virtually any reason under the Patriot Act and its legal progeny. To spy on people outside the US, it relies on the NSA, the CIA, and other agencies.

Power to arrest:

Like the FBI, the DHS can arrest people in the US or abroad if it obtains the cooperation of the foreign country. Those arrested by the DHS in the US have all the rights they would have if arrested by any other US police body. If the DHS nabs someone overseas, that person will show up in the US judicial system.


DHS has full department status, unlike the FBI or the CIA. They have their own department head. It is a cabinet position that reports straight to the president and only nominally to the National Director of Intelligence.


Wiki 2015 Mar NSA Logo

National Security Agency/Central Security Service


Cryptology is at the core of the NSA/CSS. It’s the agency’s job to break foreign codes and set codes for the entire US government. It also listens to and stores foreign and domestic signals, including computer signals.

The NSA is very stingy at sharing what it gathers with other sectors of the intelligence community. Other intelligence organizations view the NSA as a black hole where information and money go in, and nothing comes out. In fact, it is undoubtedly the source of astronomers’ models of cosmological black holes.

Where the NSA operates:

Most NSA employees reside and operate inside the US, though they might travel to US embassies or foreign bases. Anywhere there are secured communications, the NSA has the authority to show up and investigate to make sure that security procedures are in place.

The NSA neither confirms nor denies having any facilities for gathering signals outside of the US.

What the NSA can do:

The NSA’s foreign and domestic intelligence gathering operations are not discussed, however, we would refer you to Piper’s PRISM articles listed below. Everyone in the NSA leadership serves at the pleasure of the president. As with the CIA, the president likes to pretend that he forgot that the NSA does what he tells it to do.


President Obama addressing NSA about mass surveillance on Jan 17, 2014, pretending he forgot that he ordered the mass surveillance in the first place. Image by US govt., public domain.

President Obama addressing NSA about mass surveillance on Jan 17, 2014, pretending he forgot that he ordered the mass surveillance in the first place.
Image by US govt., public domain.


Power to arrest:

The NSA doesn’t arrest anyone. Not ever. If someone shows up flashing an NSA badge, feel free to shoot them. They are a Hollywood crew and not NSA employees.


The question of NSA oversight has been afloat for many decades. They are supposed to report to the National Director of Intelligence and the CIA, but the CIA has never been satisfied with the NSA’s sharing of information.

Have you ever spotted fantastical activities on the part of spy agencies in fiction? Do you have any questions about who gets to do what to whom in the real world?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

PRISM Surveillance on Americans—What Price Convenience?

PRISM—We Can’t Stop the Signal

Why PRISM Matters

Spooks Without Boundaries

NSA: Hoarders, Cheaters, Dr. Phil, or Jerry Springer?

America Is Not a Location--The Ultimate Price of Citizen Surveillance

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Bayard & Holmes by Wall 2 Touched up 1

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her spy thriller writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of international spy thriller THE SPY BRIDE, which will be re-released this spring.

THE SPY BRIDE Final Cover 3 inch

For Bayard & Holmes updates notice of releases, subscribe to the monthly Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes in comments below, at their site, Bayard & Holmes, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

37 comments on “Writing Spies: Which Agency Does What to Who?”

  1. Wow. Not sure I wanted to know that. But I'm saving it, for reference in the future.

    I'm currently Netflix-bingeing on back seasons of Criminal Minds....

  2. LOL. I know what you mean. I have mixed feelings about being the bearer of bad news.

    I love Criminal Minds. There is no way Penelope can locate middle-aged men in New York City who owned wide-toothed combs as teenagers and who now wear only blue t-shirts, but it's fun to watch. 🙂

    1. Don't you be dissin' my Penelope! You have to admit, they have some quirky characters! LOVE Reed, and I'd like to get to know Morgan (biblically).

          1. Ahhh, it's Shemar Moore. Prepare to freak because I've met him, several times. He used to play Malcolm on the Young and the Restless when I worked on their database. He's a nice man. And yes, VERY hot, although I'd have called out several other body parts before his eyebrows.

      1. LOL. I do love Penelope, but her computer and her magical abilities with it are totally magical. And as for Morgan, I'm there. That is one hot fella. 🙂

  3. Great reference, Piper! Thanks so much for the informative blog post.

    Same here about the Criminal Minds stuff. I love the show In Plain Sight but when I had a story involving WITSEC, I made sure to do my research and not depend on Hollywood to fill me in on Witness Protection. 🙂

    1. I loved In Plain Sight, too. Fortunately, I know almost nothing about WITSEC, so I was able to enjoy it. Glad the article is helpful to you.

  4. I am very happy to see this post. I am completing a MG spy/espionage book and needed a quick reference. Thank you thank you thank you. Is there a way you could do a post on standard terms/vocabulary of the spy community? Appreciate it.

    1. That's a great idea, Pizzos3. I'll talk to Holmes about making that a topic in the future.

      In the meantime, a previous article, https://writersinthestormblog.com/2014/07/truths-of-spycraft-you-dont-see-in-fiction/, has a bit of basic terminology that is commonly misused. Also, if you have firearms in your book and you aren't a shooter, you might want to check out a post at our home site, http://bayardandholmes.com/2014/10/08/spy-truth-fiction-automatics-semi-automatics-and-revolvers/.

      Good luck!

  5. Piper, I posted late today at More Cowbell, so I expect we'll get some more visitors over here shortly. How is the Good Ship Knee Replacement going on this fine Daylight Savings Time Monday?

  6. Thanks so much for this info! I've been trying to collect info for a novel in which the protagonist is an agent investigating passport fraud. I think that's yet another police-type investigative agent function. Have you produced a similar guide for the State Department? Thanks!

    1. Glad you found it useful. We have not produced a similar guide for the State Department, but you are welcome to send us specific questions at BH@bayardandholmes.com. If Holmes and I don't know the answers, we will try to put you in touch with someone who does.

  7. I'm glad I picked right. In my novel, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, I put the DHS in charge of mermaids. My inspiration was actually the TV show Charmed, where the witches were under the jurisdiction of DHS. It's probably just a function of the fact that no one knows everything DHS does, so it's the perfect place for paranormal beings.

    1. LOL. That's great! And I'm sure that if DHS could create an agency to oversee magical and/or unusual creatures, it would definitely be on it. Young departments often scramble to expand their influence every way they can in their eagerness to justify their existence. 🙂

  8. It always makes me crazy when a writer makes such obvious mistakes about law enforcement when it's so easy to research.

    And speaking of research, DON'T TRUST TV SHOWS. Not a one of them is accurate. Go to original sources and well-researched nonfiction. Law enforcement, including your local police department, have people more than happy to help you. Also, there are some sites that are specifically set up so you can ask the experts.

    And PS from the Language Nazi. "Who" should be "whom" in your title since the preposition "to" makes it the objective case.

  9. LOL. Thank you, Language Nazi. Great point.

    So true about TV shows. I think Homeland is the one that most makes me want to stab myself with a spork. It's got great tension and drama, but it has no resemblance to reality. That's fine when the goal is a spoof or something fun like a Bond movie or Kingsman. Sadly, though, too many people watch the "realistic" scenario in Homeland and think the CIA actually behaves that way and actually has counter-terrorism employees like the highly unstable main character. Such nonsense fuels unsavory CIA myths, and actual employees and operatives don't deserve these inaccurate portrayals.

  10. Cool article, Piper and Jay! My brother-in-law (retired Marine, part of the 1st Marine Division when they invaded Iraq) works for DHS. I don't know much of what he does, except that he travels A LOT, and was in charge of coordinating local security for some of the NFL playoffs and for the Super Bowl, and investigating any suspicious incidents in the area during the time leading up to those sporting events, in order to determine whether or not they were a legitimate threat. Sounds like an important precaution and worthwhile use of resources.

    1. Before the DHS, your brother-in-law would have been able to do that work as a member of the FBI. We aren't against important security work being done. We're only against the expensive duplication of agencies and too much domestic spying. We definitely appreciate the work that your brother-in-law does to keep society safe. 🙂

      1. Ah, I see now. I thought at first you were saying they don't know what their purpose is. Of course, as we've seen in Congress, bureaucratic purpose can often go astray... 😉

    1. There are a couple dozen other intelligence organizations. We wish we could have covered them all. Perhaps in a future article we will address the DIA.

  11. Hi, Jay & Piper. Very informative (and much needed) post, and fun, too! I love the FBI suits, and the comments about Homeland: "We’re not sure they know, and if they do know, they’re not admitting it." and "However, Congress, never one to do for a dollar what could be done for $38 billion dollars, created the DHS."

    I don't know enough to quibble with a tv show other than knowing that the CIA doesn't operate here. And I used to gripe if the FBI was shown operating overseas, but I'll stop now.

    My biggest pet peeve was other shows where other types would never have jurisdiction to do something. JAG was a prime contender for that - they got into all sorts of crime solving that a JAG lawyer wouldn't, and I quit watching because of that. CSI sort of does the same thing - just why are the CSI investigators doing the police detectives' work? And how often does the coroner really get involved solving mysteries outside the autopsy room or maybe crime scene itself?

    My ex-submariner husband picks on any Navy movie if the insignia or uniforms aren't right. I've sort of convinced him that if they show a destroyer instead of a cruiser, that the world won't end. 🙂

    Anyway, I too will be saving this for possible future reference. You never know when my time-traveling kids will need an FBI intervention! Hmm, or would that be Homeland, as per "jmcgarryxx" above?

    1. LOL, Jennifer, my hubby's a former submariner, too, and it cracks me up when we watch movies like Hunt for Red October ("there's no WAY they could ever get that close!") or Crimson Tide ("Firing guns inside a submarine?" ...and frothing at the mouth about chain of command...). But obviously, Sean Connery and Denzel Washington can override any authenticity issues! 😉

    2. I think jurisdiction is one of the main areas that is violated by fiction. It's certainly one of the biggest things about Homeland that has me wanting to stab myself with a spork. Here you've got outstanding actors and great drama and tension, but the jurisdiction issues are so preposterous...and people take it as gospel because they don't know the difference.

      And you would think at least the uniforms would be correct in Navy movies. It's not like they can't google it. Sheesh! I understand your husband's frustration.

      Can't wait to see how you work in this info. Lol. So glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  12. Hi .
    I wrote a story with a fictitious government agency which works outside the "Known" government. I don't know if the story will work or not.

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