The Spy Brief: IC 101 — Welcome to SpookWorld


The U.S. Intelligence Community is the best-funded and most complex collection of spy agencies on the planet. The “IC,” as the cool spy kids call it, is simply the catch-all term for America’s intelligence agencies, 16 of them in all. Although the term has been around since the early 1950s, it was only formally codified decades later, in Executive Order 12333, signed by President Ronald Reagan at the end of 1981. EO 12333 defined who’s who in the IC, who does what mission, and what they can’t do either, legally speaking.

There’s a good deal of publicly available information about the IC and its agencies — unlike some countries (or the USA in the first half of the last Cold War), Washington, DC is pretty open these days about who does what in the IC, broadly speaking. Nevertheless, the veil of operational secrecy, combined with decades of flawed reporting and bad books, plus ridiculous depictions in movies and TV shows, means that the public often has a distorted view of the IC and what it actually does.

Therefore, I’m embarking on a series for the exclusive benefit of subscribers to The Spy Brief, which will clear the air, burst myths, and brush aside misconceptions about the IC and what America’s spies actually do. This will be a primer on all 16 IC agencies, an insider’s take on who does what, along with detailed analysis of how our spooks operate — including how well they play (or don’t) with each other. Bureaucratic imperatives, including no small amount of rivalry regarding missions and budgets, often dictate why spy agencies do what they do. On its bad days, the IC can resemble a highly secretive and absurdly expensive Department of Motor Vehicles, and I’ll explain how that works in practice.

At the head of the IC sits the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), a cabinet-level position created in 2004, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, which Congressional inquiry determined occurred in part because the IC failed to act on available intelligence. Leaving that knotty controversy aside for now, the DNI was created to act as the functional boss of the IC, able to dictate terms and give commands — along with, crucially, important budgetary power — in order to make the IC function better as an integrated whole.

The current DNI is Dan Coats, appointed by President Donald Trump; he’s been in the job a little over a year. In all, there have been five DNIs (plus two short-term acting DNIs). Most of them, unlike Coats, were veteran spooks with many decades of IC experience behind them when they took the top job. (To be fair to Coats, he sat on the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee for six years, so he was familiar with IC issues before becoming DNI.) The longest-serving DNI was Jim Clapper, who held the post from mid-2010 to early 2017, an IC “lifer” who in his retirement has been a trenchant critic of President Trump and his Kremlin ties.

Before 2004, the IC’s notional boss was the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), in other words the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, who in an awkward arrangement was simultaneously the sort-of head honcho for the IC while having the full-time job of heading CIA. This never worked very well, going back to the creation of this cumbersome set-up by the National Security Act of 1947. In particular, the DCI lacked budgetary control over anything outside CIA, while approximately 80 percent of “his” IC assets actually belonged to the Department of Defense (DoD), which the DCI had no bureaucratic control over, functionally speaking.

Thus was the DNI position born, to remedy this imperfect set-up, and let me say that since April 2005, when the first DNI reported for duty, the job’s authorities have gradually grown more real, and it has brought a needed degree of central control over our 16 intelligence agencies, many of which are vast secret empires which congenitally don’t like to share with others. However, this has also meant the creation of yet another top-secret bureaucracy for the DNI, which is termed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). In practice, the ODNI can be considered the IC’s 17th member, one with a good deal of authority over the other 16 agencies.

Exactly how many employees work for the IC is a difficult question to answer, given both classification and the complex way the ODNI counts them, but it’s safe to say that not less than a quarter-million Americans work for the IC as Federal government civilians, as military members, or as contractors. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked for the IC as all three, at one point or another.) The IC’s publicly admitted budget hovers in the region of $50 billion annually, not counting billions more spent on “black budget” programs which remain classified. However, all IC spending and activities are subject to oversight by the House and Senate intelligence committees.

In addition to battalions of senior staff positions to manage all those top-secret resources — jobs generally considered cushy, meddling, and wasteful by IC personnel working in operational intelligence — the ODNI includes a handful of entities directly under its control, including several sub-agencies which are largely staffed by personnel detailed from across the IC:

The National Intelligence Council (NIC), which functions as a kind of in-house think tank for the DNI, focusing on long-term, predictive analysis. NIC jobs are considered a plum assignment for IC analysts on the make, but nobody in operational agencies pays much attention to their glossy output.

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which serves as a clearinghouse for intelligence on terrorists, mainly but not exclusively jihadists. NCTC is designed to prevent another 9/11, above all by making sure that what the IC knows about terrorists is shared with people who need to know it. The absence of more 9/11-scale attacks on our country since 2001 can be regarded as a metric of success here.

The National Counterproliferation Center (NCPC), which tracks the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical methods of mass killing, as well as the means to deliver them (especially ballistic missiles). Their work isn’t terribly sexy, being focused on complex scientific details, but is highly important.

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), formerly known as the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), works in an area that the mainstream IC has long regarded as an afterthought and annoyance. However, disasters like the Snowden defection, the loss of tens of millions of background investigation files to China, and numerous other counterintelligence (CI) fails since 2013 mandated the creation of the beefed-up NCSC. There’s still not much indication that the IC is institutionally serious about CI, however.

In this series, I’ll devote a post to each of the 16 agencies which make up the IC and are subordinated to the DNI. These are:

The Central Intelligence Agency, an independent agency

The National Security Agency, which belongs to DoD

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which belongs to DoD

The National Reconnaissance Office, which belongs to DoD

The Defense Intelligence Agency, which belongs to DoD

The Intelligence Branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which belongs to the Department of Justice (DoJ)

The Office of National Security Intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which belongs to DoJ

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the Department of State

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis of the Department of Homeland Security

The Office of Terrorism and Financial Analysis of the Department of the Treasury

The Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence of the Department of Energy

The Office of Naval Intelligence of the U.S. Navy

Intelligence and Security Command of the U.S. Army

Air Force Intelligence (25th Air Force) of the U.S. Air Force

Marine Corps Intelligence Activity of the U.S. Marine Corps

Coast Guard Intelligence of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the coming weeks, I’ll bring you a deep-dive on all 16 of these shadowy entities which spy on behalf of Uncle Sam and the American taxpayer. I promise you an informative and entertaining read, going as far as I can without violating the lifetime secrecy oath which I am subject to as a former spook, as well as someone who never seeks to harm the classified intelligence sources and methods which protect us. Watch this space!