Criminal Law

Federal Protectors: Roles of the CIA & the FBI

All around us, everyday, there are threats to our safety and security. The threats come from near and far. The leader of a foreign country may be planning to attack the US or US citizens traveling abroad. Someone in your neighborhood or office building may be hacking into government, business or personal computers.

Who protects us from these and other threats? The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - two of the largest agencies in the federal government.


The CIA's job is to collect and analyze information (or "intelligence") from foreign countries about potential risks to our national security. The CIA then passes on that information to US government officials, such as the President, members of Congress or the US Department of Defense.

Government officials use that information to figure out the nation's foreign policy: How the US, as a nation, will react to or deal with a particular problem or threat posed by a foreign government or group.

Collecting Information

The CIA collects information in several ways. Sure, CIA agents run secret, undercover operations in foreign countries - the type of thing you may see in many books and movies. The CIA also gets information by:

  • Translating foreign newspaper and magazine articles, as well as radio, television and internet traffic
  • Using satellites to take pictures from space
  • Intercepting and decoding encrypted messages
  • Hiring foreign nationals to gather information about their countries

What the CIA Is Not

There are two main things to remember about what the CIA does not do. First, it isn't a law enforcement agency. It has no authority to arrest anyone or to enforce any laws. It simply gathers information.

Also, the CIA works only in foreign matters. It is illegal for the CIA to investigate any US citizen or company inside the US, unless an investigation is part of a foreign intelligence. For example, the CIA may investigate a US citizen who's suspected of being part of a terrorist plot being planned in a foreign country.


Unlike the CIA, the FBI is a law enforcement agency. In fact, it's often called the largest law enforcement agency on the planet. Also unlike the CIA, the FBI does not work in foreign countries.

As the investigative and enforcement arm of the US Department of Justice, the FBI investigates:

How the FBI Works

In many cases, the FBI works closely with state and local law enforcement agencies. So, those who commit federal crimes may be prosecuted in state court. Based on the results of the investigation, the Justice Department may or may not decide to press federal criminal charges.

FBI agents are bound by the same legal rules as other law enforcement agents, too. For instance, like the state and local law enforcement agencies in your area, FBI agents:

  • Are restricted on when deadly force may be used to apprehend a suspect
  • Usually must get search warrants before rummaging through your home or office for evidence of a crime or an arrest warrant before arresting you

The biggest difference between the FBI and state and local police departments is the FBI's nationwide reach. State and local law enforcement agents typically can't enforce laws outside their specific jurisdiction, such as their state, county or city. The FBI, on the other hand, has investigative and arrest powers anywhere in the US where a federal criminal law is violated.

The CIA and FBI's work isn't always the glamorous and exciting missions you read about in books or see on TV and in the movie theater. Glamour or not, these federal agents work hard to keep you and your family safe.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if the FBI asks to talk to me about suspected criminal activity taking place where I work? Can I get fired for talking to the agents?
  • Can FBI agents use GPS tracking devices on suspects' cars without a warrant?
  • Can a CIA agent make an arrest while inside a bank at the time it's being robbed? Is the agent or federal government legally liable if the agent doesn't make an arrest and the robber hurts or kills someone?
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