Who’s Who in the IC

I read a British thriller recently that included an American covert-operations team — the usual black-bag stuff, infiltration, assassination, like that.  The author must have had a tight deadline, because he made these operatives employees of the National Security Agency.

I guess to a foreign audience that sounded good enough, but of course the NSA doesn’t do any of that.  They hire cryptographers and network analysts, not ex-SOF paramilitaries.

But it’s easy to get confused.  The US has a vast, sprawling, and almost incomprehensible range of organizations involved in intelligence.  Broadly speaking they may be divided into military and “civilian” agencies.  The former includes, for example, the DOD’s Special Forces Command, and each service arm’s own intelligence units.  The latter houses the CIA, the NSA, and innumerable others.  The civilian side alone has a budget in the current fiscal year of nearly $50 billion; the military side is still kept secret.  (You can “see” the Military Intelligence Program’s budget, every last line of which is redacted, here.)

The point is that if your plot requires spies and secret agents, there are many, many more choices than Langley.  Is the villain smuggling a nuclear bomb in on a container ship?  Coast Guard Intelligence could save the day.  Is the warhead going the other way — stolen from a US decommissioning operation, for example?  The Air Force Office of Special Investigations might be involved.  Need someone to run down al-Qaeda’s hawala donors?  Your hero could come from Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Financial Analysis.  And so forth.

Of course, for many authors (and readers) such background wonkery is unnecessary — give your protagonist some Krav Maga training, stubble and an authority problem, and you’re done.  For me, though, it’s a little like firearms.  Sure, I could just hand out “pistols” and “rifles” and “MAC-10s” to my characters and let it go.  (“MAC-10s” is a joke, you know that, right?  A topic for another post …)  But readers like more detail than that, so I do the research.  It doesn’t take too much time.

Finally, the point of this entire post:  the best survey of American spy agencies I know of is Jeffrey Richelson’s The US Intelligence Community.  Sure, it’s incomplete; necessarily so, since chairs move around in the bureaucracy faster than Richelson’s 3-4 year revision cycle can keep up with.  And plenty of material is available online, if you can sort through the reliability questions.  But for an all-in-one reference, this book cannot be beat.

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