Writing Spies: A Window Into the Top Four Organizations

By Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

In spy and crime fiction, one of the most common mistakes that my writing partner and I see is confusion about which organization does what, to whom, and where. As a result, our first goal in writing Spycraft: Essentials was to draw on my partner’s 45 years of experience in military and intelligence field operations to clear up that confusion and provide a window into the top spy organizations.

While there are countless military and civilian intelligence organizations, some famous, some infamous, and some never heard of at all, we’ll focus on four of the biggest civilian branches because they are also the ones that most commonly appear in fiction:

  • the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA” or “Company”)
  • the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”)
  • the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”)
  • the National Security Agency/Central Security Service (“NSA/CSS” or “NSA”)

Overview of the “Big Four”

Central Intelligence Agency


To collect, assess, and disseminate foreign intelligence. The CIA does not set foreign policy or make foreign policy decisions. It treats the branches of the military and government as clients, providing them with the information they request and carrying out the tasks assigned to the agency. The CIA is and always was what Congress thought it was creating for the first time with the DHS.

Where the CIA operates:

Exclusively on foreign soil. Entire novels and TV series are premised on the notion that the CIA conducts elaborate surveillance and investigations of American citizens on American soil. (i.e. Homeland and Burn Notice). No. Even in the case of an internal investigation, such as the investigation of traitor CIA officer Aldrich Ames, the agency must contact the FBI and/or the DHS—depending on the foreigner’s activities—as soon as surveillance on American soil is involved.

What the CIA is authorized to do:

The CIA is authorized to gather intelligence on foreign countries and foreign individuals outside of the United States. The agency has its own employees, also known as blue-badgers because they carry blue government badges. It can also employ contractors (a.k.a. green-badgers for their green badges) and foreigners. Any combination of employees, contractors, or foreign agents can be involved in an operation.

Power to arrest:

The CIA does not have the authority to arrest anyone. They do at times detain foreigners in the process of covert actions, but the CIA never arrests people for the purpose of prosecution. To arrest someone on foreign soil for the purpose of prosecution, the CIA must cooperate with the FBI, which must in turn cooperate with the host country.

Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured Image by US govt., public domain.

Islamabad house where Ramzi Yousef was captured Image by US govt., public domain.

An example of this interaction is the arrest of the first World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, in Islamabad, Pakistan. A US State Department employee found the relevant lead by passing out thousands of matchbooks with a modest reward offer printed on the covers. He turned over the information to the CIA, which located Yousef and kept him under surveillance until an FBI team could arrive in Pakistan.

The FBI executed a raid while the Islamabad Police waited outside the building. When the FBI brought Yousef out, the Islamabad Police performed the arrest and immediately turned him back over to the FBI team to be escorted to New York for formal prosecution.


The CIA reports to the National Intelligence Director, who reports to the president. The agency is overseen by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

As much as Congress and the president disavow their knowledge of CIA activities at times, the CIA has never operated without oversight from Congress and the White House. It is definitely worth noting that elected officials such as senators and representatives (i.e., politicians) do not have to pass so much as a polygraph, much less a security clearance, to sit on these committees that oversee the Intelligence Community.

This lack of security at the Congressional level has definitely caused problems for Intelligence Community professionals, some of whom no doubt feel at times like they are duct-taped to a chair while watching toddlers play with loaded guns.

Federal Bureau of Investigation


The FBI was originally intended to be the federal government’s investigative agency. Now, the FBI investigates both criminal and terrorist activities and has offices in several overseas US embassies. Official priorities listed at the FBI website:

  1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack
  2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage
  3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes
  4. Combat public corruption at all levels
  5. Protect civil rights
  6. Combat transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises
  7. Combat major white-collar crime
  8. Combat significant violent crime
  9. Support federal, state, local and international partners
  10. Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission

Canstock photo of three actual FBI agents.

(Unofficially, the FBI is tasked with keeping suit manufacturers in business. The stereotype of the FBI agent as the quintessential G-man in a three-piece suit is very much based in fact.)

Where the FBI operates:

The FBI operates inside the US as both an investigative and a law enforcement agency. Outside of the US, the FBI assists foreign governments in investigations and conducts investigations of crimes against Americans and American installations. It also acts as a liaison to foreign law enforcement agencies.

What the FBI is authorized to do:

The FBI is authorized to conduct law enforcement and surveillance inside the US. Outside the US, it relies on the CIA for surveillance and must obtain the permission and cooperation of foreign governments for any US law enforcement activities on their territory.

Power to arrest:

The FBI arrests people inside America and, with the cooperation of foreign governments, takes criminals abroad into custody. Anyone arrested by the FBI will be processed through the US court system with all US civil rights afforded to them.


The FBI answers to the Department of Justice and the head of that department, the Attorney General. The president can and does speak directly to the Bureau, and the Attorney General and various congressional committees provide oversight.

Department of Homeland Security


We’re not sure they know, and if they do know, they’re not admitting it. We are not actually being as flippant as that may sound.

Law prevented the FBI and CIA from operating effectively to avert terrorism in the United States in that the FBI and the CIA weren’t allowed to share most of their information with each other. This could have been fixed with a few changes in the law. However, Congress, never one to do for a dollar what could be done for $38 billion dollars, created the DHS.

Their intent in establishing the DHS w

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