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What Is the Difference between the CIA, FBI and NSA?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are agencies of the American government that are concerned with security, intelligence, and law enforcement respectively. Each agency has a specific area of focus, although they do occasionally cooperate on cases to share information which could lead to a breakthrough. The staff of each agency are highly trained specialists in their field, and people interested in pursuing careers at these agencies usually attend top tier schools.

The CIA gathers information internationally which is relevant to American security. The CIA also has the ability to evaluate the information and take action if the information suggests that the United States may be at risk. The CIA operates around the world, using a series of agents on the ground to relay information back to the central offices in Virginia. CIA agents often cooperate with other international intelligence agencies, especially wartime allies. If terrorists are planning an attack on the American government from outside the United States, for example, the investigation would be handled by the CIA.

The FBI is a domestic law enforcement agency. The FBI also gathers domestic intelligence, and works to put a stop to threats from within the United States. As the premier law enforcement agency in the United States, the FBI assists local police in handling major cases, and also has a sophisticated evidence lab. Law enforcement agencies can send material for analysis to the FBI if their local labs are not equipped to handle it. Major murder cases, crimes which cross state boundaries, and kidnappings are all under the jurisdiction of the FBI. If someone within the United States was planning to do something that threatened American security, it would be under the jurisdiction of the FBI.

The FBI also handles domestic surveillance. If the CIA wants information on individuals within the United States, they must go through the FBI to obtain it. The FBI maintains federal watchlists, most wanted documentation, and surveillance services on suspicious individuals inside the United States. FBI agents are distributed around the country in local bureaus to assist local law enforcement in enforcing the laws of the United States and to neutralize threats to American security.

The NSA is probably the least known and most poorly understood government intelligence agency. The NSA is actually combined with the Central Security Service (CSS), and it is primarily a cryptological organization. NSA employees decrypt foreign intelligence, generate encryption keys to secure American information, and handle data processing for the United States government. The mission of the NSA is “information assurance.” Information assurance refers to breaking foreign intelligence codes while retaining the security of American information, which is accomplished through encryption, secured computer systems, and access control.

The NSA handles most American computer intelligence and decryption, and has also contributed significantly to computer technology around the world. Early computers were developed in the offices of the NSA, and the NSA continues to innovate in the technological field. NSA agents are primarily found in the head offices of the organization in Maryland, although they also work closely with the United States Armed Forces to secure military information on bases and in the battlefield.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1003582 — On Jul 26, 2020

Those people... love money.

They also love killing people.

God hates them, and so do I.

By anon989457 — On Mar 07, 2015

I fell about laughing over the comment that America invented the computer. Ever heard of Bletchley Park and Colossus?

As to whether one is suitable for the FBI or to become a Detective if one goes online and searches for MI5 (a British organization) they have video clips of things going on followed by a quiz such as "What was the colour of the hat worn by the man who got out of the car?" (many more questions follow!) It seems that they are looking for people with astonishing powers of observation or possibly photographic memories. One can surmise that such ability is a gift that cannot be learned but by all means have a go at the tests. Typically there will be six or maybe ten things happening at the same time and to recall who did what is no easy task! Good luck.

By anon985281 — On Jan 14, 2015

All these people complaining about how useless these agencies are, and yet without them the United States would be total chaos. It's nice to see that the average citizen appreciates the hard work these agencies do to keep us safe.

By anon971570 — On Sep 27, 2014

The most important Agency in America is the NSA. The CIA and FBI have to pass stuff by them if something happens, or if classified files have leaked or something big that must be condemned.

By anon956589 — On Jun 14, 2014

They are all psychotic jerks.

By anon926521 — On Jan 19, 2014

The photo of the FBI examining the bloody corpse mostly covered up is not at all necessary, and I believe I see a spike through the hand driven into the ground.

Investigators with the large FBI logo are often in the media, and we know they work on crime scenes. Show the FBI dragging off a corrupt politician. Who wouldn't love to do that?

By anon926106 — On Jan 16, 2014

If they are trying to destroy socialism, they are failing miserably.

By anon355388 — On Nov 16, 2013

Their main idea is to destroy socialism and kill socialists all over the world, but feed freedom fighters like Osama bin Laden, the Free Syrian army, Al Nusra, El Quade and Saudi Arabia.

Their secondary work is investigate unimportant events like stupids killing each other while joking with a gun, small theft, etc.

Protecting people is just their motto but it is not. A man with average intelligence could understand police couldn't protect all people. They can just protect someone.

By anon353857 — On Nov 03, 2013

What is being missed, is who these agencies report to.

The Central Intelligence Agency is an independent agency reporting to the Director of National Intelligence, who ultimately reports to the president.

The FBI is part of the Department of Justice, which also includes the DEA.

The NSA is part of the Department of Defense. This includes the NSA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Central Security Service (CSS).

The NSA’s primary role is the main producer and manager of signals intelligence. The DIA serves as the country's main foreign military espionage organization. It specializes in collection and analysis of human-source intelligence (HUMINT), has its own clandestine service and is the manager of the military's diplomatic efforts.

The NGA’s role is collecting, analyzing and distributing geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of national security. The NRO designs, builds and operates the spy satellites. The CSS promotes partnership of all DOD agencies for signal intelligence.

Keep in mind, these agencies operate separate from the departments of the Army (Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), Air Force (Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISRA) and Navy's intelligence commands (Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), (Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA) and National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office (NMIO).

No one asked, but what other intelligence agencies are there? Just a few more: the United States Department of Homeland Security - Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) and Coast Guard Intelligence (CGI); United States Department of Energy - Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (OICI); United States Department of State - Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR); United States Department of the Treasury - Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). Is there any wonder the intelligence community is out of control? --13th Legion

By anon344176 — On Aug 06, 2013

The FBI was founded in 1908 and then called the Bureau of Investigation. In 1935, they changed their name to FBI. It is a federal organization intended to investigate and enforce federal laws and reports to the Department of Justice.

The CIA reports to the Executive Branch, and while it answers to the President, its head is ratified by the Senate, and it also answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee (which controls its budget).

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is one of the principal intelligence gathering agencies of the United States federal government. As an independent executive agency, it reports to the Director of National Intelligence.

The CIA was formed by Truman during World War II. In 1947, it was first called the Central Intelligence Group so that never again would the country be surprised by an attack like Pearl Harbor.

Truman wanted all intelligence cables, wires, reports read and compiled daily in one report to relieve him of the time of reading and researching it all himself every day.

By anon336101 — On May 26, 2013

Is NCR in cahoots with the national security agency?

By anon327578 — On Mar 28, 2013

The simple answer that this article misses is that comparing the FBI to the CIA and NSA is an apples and orange comparison. The FBI is a law enforcement agency under the Department of Justice. The CIA and NSA are intelligence agencies under the Department of Defense. While there is some inter-agency cooperation (mostly national security investigations), the CIA and NSA aren't really involved in law enforcement except in national security issues (such as terrorism) and drug interdiction. For most of the history of the United States, they've not been permitted to operate within the U.S. or spy on U.S. citizens except within very strict guidelines.

@Anon3216: If you want to work for the FBI, plan to get a law degree and consider becoming fluent in a language of interest to the FBI, such as Farsi or Mandarin. Most FBI agents have law school degrees, but there are a few other degrees that are also acceptable. You should do some more research to make sure because it's a big investment of time and money and getting accepted into the FBI academy is going to be very competitive.

By scowt337 — On Nov 17, 2012

This is curious. No Such Agency is still slightly misunderstood. Crypto, yes, but look up "SIGINT" and "vacuum cleaner" for a better understanding of what they're best at.

By anon219692 — On Oct 03, 2011

This article still misunderstands the NSA and all the language analysis and the political science majors who write reports from SIGINT. It is not just a "cryppie" organization anymore, from what I've heard.

By anon162389 — On Mar 23, 2011

If you want to work for the FBI, go to embry-Riddle Prescott (if you can't get into harvard or something like that), and take Global Security and Intelligence. Take a minor in helicopter or something like that, and voila. work as a cop for three or four years, then apply for FBI or CIA or NSA. ERAU Prescott takes trips to FBI headquarters and meets them, and CIA and FBI often go to ERAU for recruitment.

By anon89028 — On Jun 08, 2010

is a splinter cell really real like in the video games?

By anon85213 — On May 19, 2010

how come the serial killers aren't in the top ten for anything?

By anon66026 — On Feb 17, 2010

I was wondering if it was possible to transfer from the FBI to the CIA?

By anon46413 — On Sep 25, 2009

where can i get information for a research paper on different conspiracies pertaining to the cia?

By anon38773 — On Jul 28, 2009

Hi, I was actually trying to find out different

ranking of agents like,who is superior between

agent 007 and 008?

By anon3216 — On Aug 16, 2007

I was just wondering, If I wanted to work undercover for the FBI what Should I major in and what would be the best school??

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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