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An Examination of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Security
Wordcount: 1754 words Published: 18th May 2020

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An Examination of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency

Today the United States faces threats from multiple countries, organization, and individuals throughout the world. Intelligence is used to mitigate these threats and at the forefront of the Intelligence Community of the United States are the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is important to understand how these agencies impact the safeguarding the of United States and how they accomplish this mission. To achieve this understanding, an evaluation of the CIA and NSA to compare these agencies is the purpose of this essay. The CIA and NSA are both intelligence agencies, but differ in their discipline, roles, missions, authorities, and the chain of command they serve.

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 The disciplines the CIA and NSA specialize in are very different. The CIA focuses on non-technical intelligence disciplines, specifically Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Though not technically a discipline the CIA also conducts all source intelligence analysis. “The Director of the CIA (DCIA) is the National Human Intelligence Manager and serves on behalf of the DNI as the national authority for coordination, de-confliction, and evaluation of clandestine (primarily human source collection, or HUMINT) operations across the IC, consistent with existing laws, Executive Orders, and interagency agreements.”[1] In contrast, the NSA focuses on technical intelligence disciplines with a specific focus on Signal Intelligence (SIGINT). Included under the SIGINT discipline the NSA also specializes in Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), Communications Intelligence (COMINT), and Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence (FISINT). “The National Security Agency (NSA) and its military partner, the Central Security Service, leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations (NCO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the nation and our allies under all circumstances.”[2]

 Additionally, the roles and missions of the CIA and NSA differ. The CIA was created after the National Security Act of 1947 as the central repository and coordinator for intelligence collection. The CIA’s role has evolved over the years but remains the central agency for HUMINT and counterintelligence efforts. The CIA takes the lead role in counterterrorism throughout the world and assists domestic agencies with domestic counterterrorism efforts. Although briefly curtailed by then President Obama, the CIA conducts attacks on terrorist targets overseas via missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles also known as “drones”. The program has come under scrutiny in the past, but President Trump is seeking to expand the program once more. According to the CIA’s website, “The CIA’s primary mission is to collect, analyze, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the President and senior US government policymakers in making decisions relating to national security.”[3] The NSA’s role has been one of providing technical collection of SIGINT under the direction of the Security of Defense. The NSA supports the domestic counterterrorism efforts when requested to do so. According to editor Lock Johnson, the NSA can tap a phone from thousands of miles away with the push of a button.[4] The efforts have not always been met with open arms, however. After the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act, the NSA engaged in surveillance of U.S. persons without proper warrants. The NSA’s website provides the mission statement, “The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) leads the U.S. Government in cryptology that encompasses both signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance (now referred to as cybersecurity) products and services, and enables computer network operations (CNO) in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.”[5]

 Even the authorities under which the CIA and NSA operate have differences between them. The CIA derives its authority from the National Security Act of 1947 and Title 50 U.S.C. Sections 403 (d) and (e). Addition guidance on the CIA’s authority and how it can be used is provided in Executive Order 12333. Executive Order 12333 states, the CIA is to: “Collect, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, including information not otherwise obtainable.”[6] This authority to operate is intended for the CIA to collect on foreign entities outside of the United States. For the CIA to collect on foreign entities within the continental United States, it must coordinate these efforts with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The NSA also derives some of its authority from Executive Order 12333 as well. The NSA also receives its authority from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. “Executive Order 12333 is the foundational authority by which NSA collects, retains, analyzes, and disseminates foreign signals intelligence information.”[7]

 Lastly, the CIA and NSA follow different chains of command. As the central intelligence service established directly by the National Security Act of 1947 the CIA stands as an independent agency. “The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCIA) serves as the head of the CIA and reports to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).”[8] The NSA reports to the Secretary of Defense who coordinates intelligence activity through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI “serves as the principle intelligence advisor to the President of the United States, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council on intelligence issues”.[9]

 In conclusion, the CIA and NSA specialize in different disciplines, play different roles, have different missions, have authorities derived from different acts, and report up slightly different chains of command. Although the NSA and CIA are members of the United States Intelligence Community and both collect intelligence on foreign adversaries, they go about these missions very differently. They also both contribute to the counterterrorism mission of the United States both abroad and domestically when certain criteria are met, yet the compacities in which they do this are unalike. Even with these similarities, they do have differences between them that make them unique amongst the intelligence organizations.


[1] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, U.S. National Intelligence: An Overview 2013. p. 12.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] “What We Do,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed June 27, 2019, https://www.cia.gov/about-cia/todays-cia/what-we-do.

[4] Johnson, Loch K., ed. Handbook of Intelligence Studies. London: Routledge, 2007. P. 59.

[5] “Mission & Values,” National Security Agency/Central Security Agency, access June 27, 2019, https://www.nsa.gov/about/mission-values/

[6] Exec. Order No. 12333, 3 C.F.R. 414.

[7] “The National Security Agency: Missions, Authorities, Oversight and Par.” National Security Agency | Central Security Service. Accessed June 29, 2019. https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/press-room/Article/1618729/the-national-security-agency-missions-authorities-oversight-and-partnerships/.

[8] National Intelligence. “Central Intelligence Agency.” Home. Accessed June 29, 2019. https://www.intelligence.gov/index.php/how-the-ic-works/our-organizations/411-cia.

[9] “Organization of the Intelligence Community.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/organization-intelligence-community.


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