America’s Intelligence Community: An Overview

From the Lecture series: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Of course, we have all heard of the big intelligence organizations—the CIA and the NSA. But, did you know that they are only 2 of at least 17 standalone offices of the intelligence community in America? Let’s make an attempt to get a sense of the breadth of the US intelligence enterprise and how it’s structured.

Image shows memorial  for September 11 terrorist attack with the American flag set up near the names of victims.
The US intelligence community was overhauled after 9/11. (Image: Minghong Xia/Shutterstock)

Which, if any, of these three- and four-letter acronyms do you recognize: OICI, INR, MCIA, NRO? If you recognize all four, then you may skip reading.

If not, then here are the answers: the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (OICI), which is part of the Department of Energy; the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), in the Department of State; the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA); and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is in the Department of Defense.

All are a part of what we call the Intelligence Community, or IC.

Why the Need of Intelligence?

A question you might reasonably ask is: Why does the Department of Energy have a spy agency? Most of what department does involves regulating energy production and funding of research into newer energy sources.

But, the Department of Energy is also the home for our national laboratories, with their significant technical expertise; and houses our experts in the construction of nuclear weapons, as well as experts in nuclear proliferation, nuclear energy, radioactive waste, and other related topics.

So that’s the explanation. The OICI’s critical function in the intelligence community is not the collection of information, but rather its analysis. In particular, OICI is the lead component in assessing foreign nuclear weapons programs.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Pre-9/11 Intelligence Community

Logo of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Pre-9/11, the CIA head ran the agency and was also the director of Central Intelligence. (Image: ruskpp/Shutterstock)

Prior to 9/11, the many intelligence agencies—and there were fewer back then—were quasi-independent fiefdoms. The head of the CIA actually had two jobs—he ran the agency, and he was the director of Central Intelligence (DCI), with nominal coordinating functions over all of the other intelligence agencies.

But this arrangement proved to be very challenging in later years. For one thing, it’s hard for any one person to do two jobs. For another, the DCI had very little real authority over the other components of the IC. He couldn’t set budgets, nor could he allocate resources or set priorities.

It’s an overstatement to say he was a figurehead, but it is a fair to say he had less responsibility and authority than appeared from the outside.

How the Intelligence Community Changed Post 9/11

When the Congress reviewed the situation after 9/11, they didn’t like what they saw. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

The resulting structure is more or less a federation intended to maximize the effectiveness of intelligence collection and dissemination among 17 member agencies while maintaining independence of action among each.

Thus, the director’s role is to organize and coordinate the efforts of the various agencies to meet previously determined intelligence needs.

Learn more about why the CIA and the FBI were faulted for not sharing intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11.

Limitations of Office of the Director of National Intelligence

However, the office’s budgetary authority is limited to the civilian side—the so-called National Intelligence Program. As part of the back and forth that led to the creation of the office, the Department of Defense carved out the Military Intelligence Program, which is controlled by the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.

In practice, this means that large swaths of the IC—including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the NSA—are not formally within the control of the Director of National Intelligence.

National Counterterrorism Center

An innovation of the 2004 law was to establish several national hubs responsible for developing collaborative approaches to the collection and analysis of intelligence for a specific issue.

One of them, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), doesn’t actually collect any information on its own account but is designed to serve as the central repository for making connections between all of the available pieces of information about terrorism that the IC collects.

Joining the Dots Post-9/11

If our failure before 9/11 was that we did not connect the dots, then the NCTC is in the dot-connection business. Except for purely domestic terrorism—think Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing—all of the data that we collect on potential terrorist threats goes through this hub.

Representatives from every agency of the government with counter-terrorism responsibility—including intelligence and federal law enforcement, as well as local law enforcement from big cities like Washington DC and New York—sit together there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year collecting, and sharing, and analyzing information on terrorist threats.

Learn more about some of last century’s infamous spies

Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive

The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX) is another example of the collective approach. Counterintelligence is the art of trying to find the other side’s spies—during the Cold War, the people that the Soviets recruited to work here in the United States. Think of Aldrich Ames, the famous CIA officer who was really working for the Russians.

Chrome whistle on documents with confidential top secret information on wooden office desk
A central intelligence organization like the ONCIX is better equipped to make decisions dispassionately. (Image: Shawn Hempel/Shutterstock)

There are at least three reasons why the job of finding internal spies is best managed by a central executive organization. Firstly, it’s difficult to monitor your own house. Try as it might, the NSA is better off with someone else looking over its shoulders for spies than the agency is at trying to find them inside the NSA itself.

Secondly, what to do with the internal moles once you find them? A natural instinct is to arrest the traitor. But another possibility is to exploit the discovery by feeding false information back to your adversary.

A third complication is that there’s a fine line between espionage and whistleblowing. Many cases clearly fall on one side of the line or the other, but often there’s some ambiguity. A central organization like the ONCIX is better equipped to make those decisions dispassionately.

So, together, all these agencies, or the intelligence community, collect and analyze information, creating what we call “intelligence”.

Common Questions about America’s Intelligence Community

Q: How many intelligence agencies does the US have?

There are about 17 intelligence agencies in the US.

Q: What does the National Counterterrorism Center does?

The National Counterterrorism Center is designed to serve as the central repository for making connections between all of the available pieces of information about terrorism that the intelligence community collects.

Q: What does the ONCIX do?

The ONCIX is an central executive intelligence agency that has the job of finding internal spies.