How the CIA Works

Photo courtesy CIA

Despite plenty of Hollywood films about the CIA and its spies, many people still don't know what the agency actually does. In this article, we'll take a look at the history of the CIA and the scandals that have rocked it through the decades. We'll see how the organization is structured today, who oversees it and what kinds of checks and balances are in place. We'll also take a look at how the spies do their jobs -- in other words, we'll see just how much of that Hollywood stuff is real.

The CIA stands for the Central Intelligence Agency. Its primary stated mission is to collect, evaluate and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the president and senior United States government policymakers in making decisions about national security. The CIA may also engage in covert action at the president's request. It doesn't make policy. It isn't allowed to spy on the domestic activities of Americans or to participate in assassinations, either -- though it has been accused of doing both.

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­Like other aspects of the U.S. government, the CIA has a system of checks and balances. The CIA reports both to the executive and legislative branches. During the CIA's history, the amount of oversight has ebbed and flowed. On the executive side, the CIA must answer to three groups -- the National Security Council, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Intelligence Oversight Board.

The National Security Council is made up of the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. "The NSC advises the President on domestic, foreign and military issues that relate to national security and provides guidance, review and direction on how the CIA gathers intelligence," according to the CIA Web site. The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board comprises people from the private sector who study how well the CIA is doing its job and the effectiveness of its structure. The Intelligence Oversight Board is supposed to ensure that intelligence collection is done properly and that all intelligence gathering is legal.

On the legislative side, the CIA works primarily with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. These two committees -- along with the Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees -- authorize the CIA's programs and oversee the CIA. The appropriations committees appropriate funds for the CIA and all U.S. government activities.

Photo courtesy CIA
CIA Headquarters -- the George Bush Center for Intelligence in Langley, Va. See more spy pictures.

Speaking of funds, the CIA budget is secret and the agency is allowed to keep its staffing, organizational structure, salaries and number of employees secret under an act passed in 1949. Here's what we do know: In 1997, the total budget for all U.S. government intelligence and intelligence-related activities (of which the CIA is a part) was $26.6 billion. That was the first year the figure had been made public. In 1998, the budget was $26.7 billion. The intelligence budgets for all other years remain classified. On the staffing front, the CIA employs about 20,000 people.

CIA History
The United States has always engaged in foreign intelligence activities. Covert action aided the patriots in winning the Revolutionary War. But the first formal, organized agencies didn't exist until the 1880s, when the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Army's Military Intelligence Division were created. Around World War I, the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) took over intelligence-gathering duties. The intelligence structure continued through several iterations. For example, the Office of Strategic Services, known as the OSS, was established in 1942 and abolished in 1945.

Photo courtesy Naval Historical Center
The USS Arizona burning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This attack was a major intelligence failure and contributed to the creation of the CIA.

After World War II, U.S. leaders struggled with how to improve national intelligence. The Pearl Harbor bombing, which brought the United States into World War II, was considered a major intelligence failure.

In 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act, which created the CIA. The act also created a director of central intelligence, who had three different roles: the president's principal adviser on security issues, the head of the entire U.S. intelligence community and the head of the CIA, one of the agencies within that intelligence community. This structure was revised in 2004, with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which created the position of director of national intelligence to oversee the intelligence community. Now, the director of the CIA reports to the director of national intelligence.

Photo courtesy US Air Force
General Michael V. Hayden, USAF, director of the CIA as of May 30, 2006
Two years later, Congress passed the Central Intelligence Agency Act, which allows the agency to keep its budget and staffing secret. For many years, the agency's primary mission was to protect the United States against communism and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These days, the agency has an even more complex job -- to protect the United States from terrorist threats from all over the globe.

CIA Structure
The CIA is broken down into four different teams, each with its own responsibilities:

National Clandestine Service
This is where the so-called "spies" work. NCS employees go undercover abroad to collect foreign intelligence. They recruit agents to collect what is called "human intelligence." What kinds of people work for the NCS? NCS employees are generally well-educated, know other languages, like to work with people from all over the world and can adapt to any situation, including dangerous ones. Most people, including their friends and family members, will never know exactly what NCS employees do. Later we'll take a look at how the spies stay undercover and check out some of their cool gadgets.

Directorate of Science and Technology
The people on this team collect overt, or open source, intelligence. Overt intelligence consists of information that appears on TV, on the radio, in magazines or in newspapers. They also use electronic and satellite photography. This team attracts people who enjoy science and engineering.

Directorate of Intelligence
All of the information gathered by the first two teams is turned over to the Directorate of Intelligence. Members of this team interpret the information and write reports about it. A DI employee must have excellent writing and analytical skills, be comfortable presenting information in front of groups and be able to handle deadline pressure.

Directorate of Support
This team provides support for the rest of the organization and handles things like hiring and training. "The Directorate of Support attracts the person who may be a specialist in a field such as an artist or a finance officer, or a generalist with many different talents," according to the CIA Web site.

Next, we'll take a look at CIA scandals and learn more about spies.