Writers in the Storm

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October 13, 2021

Writing Spies: A Window Into the Top Four Organizations

By Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

In spy and crime fiction, one of the most common mistakes that my writing partner and I see is confusion about which organization does what, to whom, and where. As a result, our first goal in writing Spycraft: Essentials was to draw on my partner's 45 years of experience in military and intelligence field operations to clear up that confusion and provide a window into the top spy organizations.

While there are countless military and civilian intelligence organizations, some famous, some infamous, and some never heard of at all, we’ll focus on four of the biggest civilian branches because they are also the ones that most commonly appear in fiction:

  • the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA” or “Company”)
  • the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”)
  • the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”)
  • the National Security Agency/Central Security Service (“NSA/CSS” or “NSA”)

Overview of the "Big Four"

Central Intelligence Agency


To collect, assess, and disseminate foreign intelligence. The CIA does not set foreign policy or make foreign policy decisions. It treats the branches of the military and government as clients, providing them with the information they request and carrying out the tasks assigned to the agency. The CIA 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 novels 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 CIA officer 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 United States. The agency has its own employees, also known as blue-badgers because they carry blue government badges. It can also employ contractors (a.k.a. green-badgers for their green badges) and foreigners. Any combination of employees, contractors, 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 the CIA never arrests people for the purpose of prosecution. To arrest someone on foreign soil for the purpose of prosecution, the CIA must cooperate with the FBI, which 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 over 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 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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. It is definitely worth noting that elected officials such as senators and representatives (i.e., politicians) do not have to pass so much as a polygraph, much less a security clearance, to sit on these committees that oversee the Intelligence Community.

This lack of security at the Congressional level has definitely caused problems for Intelligence Community professionals, some of whom no doubt feel at times like they are duct-taped to a chair while watching toddlers play with loaded guns.

Federal Bureau of Investigation


The FBI was originally intended to be 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
Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.

(Unofficially, the FBI is tasked with keeping suit manufacturers in business. The stereotype of the FBI agent as the quintessential G-man in a three-piece suit is very much based in fact.)

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. Anyone arrested by the FBI will be processed through the US court system with all US civil rights afforded to them.


The FBI answers to the Department of Justice and the head of that department, the Attorney General. 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. We are not actually being as flippant as that may sound.

Law prevented the FBI and CIA from operating effectively to avert terrorism in the United States in that the FBI and the CIA weren’t allowed to share most of their information with each other. This could have been fixed with a few changes in the 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 United States have all the rights they would have if arrested by any other US police body, and they will be processed through the US court system. If the DHS nabs someone overseas, that person will likely show up in the US judicial system.


DHS has full department status and has their own department head, unlike the FBI or the CIA. The director of the DHS holds a Cabinet position and reports straight to the president and only nominally to the National Director of Intelligence.

This section is worth a summary:

DHS is a surveillance and law enforcement body with jurisdiction throughout the United States which can order surveillance on anyone inside the United States, US citizen and foreigner alike, for almost any reason and arrest them with virtually no oversight beyond the president. (Does that concern you? It certainly concerns us.)

In other words, when you want an organization to break all the rules and behave badly in your books, DHS is the logical one to blame, not the CIA, especially if the operation is domestic.

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 famous in the Intelligence Community for being stingy about what it shares out of what it gathers. Other intelligence organizations, both civilian and military, 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 United States, though they might travel to US embassies or foreign bases. Anywhere the United States uses 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 United States.

What the NSA can do: The NSA does not discuss its foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering operations; however, I would refer you to my PRISM articles listed below. In short, feel free to let your imagination run wild.

Power to arrest:

The NSA does not arrest anyone. Not ever. If someone shows up flashing an NSA badge, threatening to arrest you, feel free to shoot them or at least shut the door in their faces. 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. See black hole reference above.

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.

Do you have any questions about who gets to do what to whom in the real world? Are there any other Spycraft questions you'd like Bayard and Holmes to answer? Please share them with us down in the comments!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Reference Articles



What do the main intelligence agencies do and where do they operate? How do they recruit personnel? What are real-life honey pots and sleeper agents? What about truth serums and enhanced interrogations? And what are the most common foibles of popular spy fiction?

With the voice of over forty years of experience in the Intelligence Community, Bayard & Holmes answer these questions and share information on espionage history, firearms of spycraft, tradecraft techniques, and the personalities and personal challenges of the men and women behind the myths.

Though crafted with advice and specific tips for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials is for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of the Shadow World.  

“For any author, this is the new bible for crafting stories of espionage.”

~ James Rollins, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Demon Crown

About Bayard & Holmes

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or at their email, BayardandHolmes(at)protonmail(dot)com.

14 comments on “Writing Spies: A Window Into the Top Four Organizations”

  1. Thank you for the concise explanations! Two questions: if a speeding boat crosses state lines in the ICW, would a bad cop involved in an investigation be DHS/Coast Guard, or State Marine Patrol? And if the FBI is handling cyber security, what is Space Force? I’m looking forward to digging into your book!

    1. Hi, Chris. We believe the primary responsibility for the ICW would be the Coast Guard.

      Space Force is all about space and satellites. The FBI does some cybersecurity, but it is from the perspective of investigating and prosecuting cyber crimes. DHS is also involved when a cyber crime is considered to be at a terrorist level.

      Here's the link to Space Force: https://www.spaceforce.mil/

      Hope this helps!

    2. Look at that...I learned a new term. (I had to look up ICW.)

      For everyone else like me that had no idea:

      The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile inland waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the United States, running from Boston, Massachusetts, southward along the Atlantic Seaboard and around the southern tip of Florida, then following the Gulf Coast to Brownsville, Texas.

      1. Jenny, thanks for that! Even if I’d spelled out Intracoastal Waterway it wouldn’t have been as helpful.

  2. Your information on NSA is outdated, inaccurate in places, and very biased. Oversight: US Sec Defense for Intelligence (USDI) not CIA. The sharing issue is nonsense as it has always been and is a full fledge member of the IC. You make it sound like NSA runs amok collecting and storing whatever it wants. Be careful with what you disseminate as fact when you are setting yourselves up as an authority. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I hate when these agencies full of hardworking, devoted Federal employees, get cast as demons and violators of personal privacy.

    1. Hi, Irtrovi.

      The CIA was established to be the central agency for the Intelligence Community and we 100% agree that the NSA is a full-fledged member of that Intelligence Community. You are right that the NSA administratively falls under the auspices of the Department of Defense. That is true. That said, the NSA is supposed to report its intelligence findings to the CIA, as all other military and intelligence branches are supposed to do. That is the basic position. What happens from that basic position regarding the reality of reporting and inter-agency relations is a matter of politics and debate.

      We completely agree with you that the NSA, like all of the organizations in the IC, is mostly full of hardworking, devoted Federal employees, and we in no way intend to demonize those employees by indicating that they are at times subject to administrations run amok.

  3. Wow! I really appreciate this detailed clarification on the different institutions. Thank you, Piper! I have a question. Are there such things as black ops holding cells? Or is that strictly a TV invention?
    Thanks for clearing up the distinctions between agencies.

    1. You are most welcome. So glad we could be helpful.

      Any operation can set up a holding cell. There might be times when you make a live capture, and you can't just keep them in a local hotel, and you might not be able to trust the local authorities. You also might not be able to involve the local authorities. For example, if hypothetically someone were nabbed in Russia, the nabbers would be in no position to ask Putin's cops to hold the person.

      Hope that helps.

  4. Living in the greater DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area, there's usually a federal agent of some sort I know, including Secret Service. lol I had a friend who had been a real-life CIA spy when she was single. She moved, but she had some interesting stories.


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