One 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”).
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.
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.
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:
Unofficially, the FBI is tasked with keeping suit manufacturers in business.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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