Criminal Law

Roles of the CIA and FBI

Both the CIA and FBI are part of the U.S. Intelligence Community, with a common mission to protect national security.

The missions of both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are to protect national security, but their roles are different. The CIA collects and analyzes foreign intelligence to assist the President (and other top government officials) make informed decisions on national security. The FBI, on the other hand, is the nation’s top federal law enforcement agency. Among other duties, the FBI investigates and seeks to prevent acts of domestic and international terrorism. The FBI has both intelligence and investigative duties.

What Does the CIA Do?

The CIA is an independent agency that collects, analyzes, and disseminates foreign intelligence information to top U.S. government officials. The CIA does not make policy decisions or recommendations. Instead, its role is to report intelligence information that is objective and free from political bias. The President and other agencies (such as the State Department and Department of Defense) assess this information to make policy decisions on national security issues.

The CIA is separated into several divisions. Each plays an important role in developing final intelligence reports. For example, operations agents identify and study issues of national security, such as terroristic activities or chemical weapons use. These agents gather information on the issue—either overtly or covertly—in the field or through technological means. The agents then review and assess the meaning and importance of the information and prepare a final intelligence report to present to U.S. government officials. Employees in the CIA support divisions keep the organization running efficiently so agents can do their work.

What the CIA Doesn’t Do?

Federal law prohibits the CIA from collecting information on “U.S. Persons,” which includes U.S. citizens, resident aliens, legal immigrants, and U.S. corporations. The CIA collects intelligence information only on foreign countries and their citizens. And, unlike the FBI, the CIA does not have arrest powers. But the two agencies cooperate on many issues, such as counterintelligence and threats to national security.

What Does the FBI Do?

The FBI is the nation’s lead federal law enforcement agency. It has broad authority to investigate:

  • acts of terrorism (domestic and international)
  • attacks involving weapons of mass destruction
  • attacks on U.S. officials, and
  • other terrorism-related offenses.

Additionally, the FBI has divisions devoted to combatting other federal law violations, including cyber-crime, public corruption, civil rights violations, organized crime, white-collar crime, and gang and drug crimes. The arrest powers of FBI agents are broad—extending to violations of federal law committed anywhere in the U.S. or its territories. (The FBI turns over evidence of federal crimes to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.)

In an effort to combat crime nationwide, the FBI coordinates with local, state, and other federal law enforcement agencies in investigations and joint task forces. The FBI also assists these agencies with cooperative services, such as fingerprint identification, laboratory services, and training.

Who Oversees the CIA and FBI?

Both the CIA and FBI are led by directors who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Congress—through several oversight committees—reviews the budgets and programs of both agencies. Information regarding the FBI budget and employees is public, while the same information on the CIA is classified.

Another difference between the two agencies is their structures. The CIA is an independent agency; whereas, the FBI falls under the Department of Justice. However, both agencies are members of the U.S. Intelligence Community—a group of 16 government agencies working separately and together to protect national security. The U.S. Intelligence Community is led by the Director of National Intelligence, who reports directly to the President. So, while the CIA is an independent agency, it must still report to the Director of National Intelligence.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if the FBI asks to talk to me about suspected criminal activity?
  • Can FBI agents use GPS tracking devices on suspects' cars without a warrant?
  • Can the CIA “wiretap” my phone or email if I’m communicating with someone abroad?
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