A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What are the 13 U.S. intelligence agencies?

April 17, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

A recent story in the San Jose Mercury News mentioned the National Reconnaissance Office, "one of the country's 13 intelligence agencies." Now, I consider myself pretty well informed and I can only name a half dozen or so (depending on whether the INS and the Secret Service count). So what are all thirteen and what do they (officially, anyhow) do?

I tell ya, secrecy ain't what it used to be. The 13 agencies dedicated to intelligence collection on behalf of the United States have pooled a few budget dollars and, get ready for this, started their very own website at www.odci.gov/ic/icagen2.htm. (Link no longer works, please see note below.) Here you can find the names of the 13 federal intelligence agencies, a brief description of what each of them does, and links to each individual agency's homepage.  Since you never know when they might repent this display of openness, here's a list of the agencies and their primary functions as of April, 2001.

  • Central Intelligence Agency: The big magilla – by placing agents, research and other means, CIA collects intelligence “on the ground” about foreign governments for distribution to the executive branch. They are a large producer and consumer of raw and semi-interpreted data from other intelligence agencies. They also engage in counter-espionage.
  • Defense Intelligence Agency: Collects intelligence with an eye specifically to the war-making ability and intentions of other countries and how our forces match up. DIA is a large consumer of raw and semi-interpreted data from other agencies.
  • Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and Marine Corps Intelligence: Dedicated to the collection of intelligence with an eye toward each services own needs, and are large generators of raw and semi-interpreted data for other agencies.
  • National Security Agency: NSA is the agency charged with cryptography and electronic surveillance. These are the guys privacy advocates and technology guys love to hate.
  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency: If you’re going to invade Iraq, you don’t want to end up in Bahrain, right? These are the guys. They offer detailed maps, often sufficient to allow building-specific missile targeting. A generator of raw, semi-interpreted and interpreted data, NIMA was formed from pieces of other agencies in 1996.
  • National Reconnaissance Office: Operates the U.S. fleet of spy satellites.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation: Collects intelligence on domestic threats, including US based but foreign-influenced terrorist organizations, domestic threats such as some separatist groups, etc. Also conducts background checks on prospective employees of other intelligence agencies and high-level executive branch positions.
  • Department of the Treasury: Primarily a consumer of interpreted and semi-interpreted data, the Office of Intelligence Support provides relevant intelligence information to the Secretary of the Treasury.
  • Department of Energy: Collects and analyzes intelligence relevant to energy policy, and looks for threats to the country’s nuclear plants and waste storage facilities.
  • Department of State: Also primarily a collector of interpreted and semi-interpreted data, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research provides relevant intelligence to the Secretary of State.

Talk about changing times. When I was growing up as the son of an intelligence man in the 1970's, we didn't learn the name of Dad's agency until we were older, and then we weren't supposed to mention it. We lived near the headquarters of the agency, which was the largest employer in the area, so you can imagine that "what does your dad do?" day at the local elementary school was a pretty brief and awkward affair.

Nowadays I can drop an e-mail to the director. It's like they have nothing to hide anymore.

So what are they hiding? Excellent question.

In terms of the actual number of agencies, nothing really. Sure, I suppose you could argue that the postal inspectors or the IRS or whoever sometimes engage in something that could reasonably be called intelligence gathering. But the government probably can't hide a whole agency anymore.

But the stuff they can hide, at least for a while, is still pretty amazing. In the mid 1990s, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates the country's spy satellites, found that its birds were staying up longer than originally planned. So rather than go back to Congress and tell them they didn't need quite so much money, they built themselves a whole new headquarters building for $300 million and didn't tell a soul--not Congress, not the White House, not even most of the folks over at the CIA who fronted for them with the contractor! This was two full years after the existence of NRO itself was declassified.

Call me crazy, but I figure if they can hide a whole building a few miles from Dulles Airport for two years, they're capable of   concealing pretty much anything.

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