CIA vs. FBI: 11 differences that matter

In media and on the news, we see government agencies have thrown around constantly—most frequently, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But what’s the difference between the two?

What is the difference between the CIA and the FBI?

The main difference between the CIA and the FBI is that the CIA does not have any law enforcement function in the United States and is strictly an information gathering and analysis agency, while the FBI investigates federal crimes. The CIA is not allowed to collect information about people living within or with a connection to the United States, while the FBI conducts investigations when necessary.

Before you read on about the differences, it’s important to understand what each agency does.

CIA vs. FBI: 11 differences that matter

What is the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the FBI, is the domestic intelligence agency of the United States. Serving under the United States Department of Justice, it reports to the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence.

The FBI focuses on counterterrorism and counterintelligence, along with having jurisdiction over hundreds of federal crimes, such as terrorism, cybercrime, public corruption, organized crime, white-collar crime, and violent crime. They also protect civil rights and work to prevent the rise of criminal empires, as stated on their website.

The FBI investigates these crimes and assists other law enforcement agencies, along with sharing and gathering intelligence.

The FBI is broken down into several main branches: Intelligence, National Security, Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services; Science and Technology; Information and Technology; and Human Resources.

The Intelligence Branch covers the Directorate of Intelligence, which shares information and analyses for national security purposes.

The Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, or the CCRSB, covers the Criminal Investigation Division, the Cyber Division, and several more.

The National Security Branch covers the Counterintelligence Division, the Counterterrorism Division, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.

Created in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation, it became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935 and is currently headquartered in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. Currently, about 35,000 people work for the FBI, according to the FBI website.

What is the Central Intelligence Agency?

The Central Intelligence Agency, or the CIA, is a foreign intelligence agency of the United States. Serving as part of the United States Intelligence Community, it reports to the Director of National Intelligence.

The CIA gathers and analyses information around the world using human intelligence, or HUMINT, along with carrying out covert operations.

CIA vs. FBI: 11 differences that matter

Its five priorities are counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, counterintelligence, cyber-intelligence; along information dissemination about important global events.

The CIA is only permitted to function overseas and has an extremely limited domestic functionality. The CIA is also the only agency that is authorized to both carry out and oversees any covert action that the President requests.

The Office of Strategic Services was established in 1942 and is considered the precursor to the CIA. The existing CIA was created in 1947 in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ role in World War II. It is currently headquartered in the George Bush Center for Intelligence in Langley, Virginia.

The CIA is broken down into several different “directorates”, or sections: Directorate of Science and Technology, Directorate of Operations, Directorate of Analysis, and Directorate of Support.

The Directorate of Science and Technology focuses on applying tech to the collection of intelligence, specifically through computer and information technology.

The Directorate of Analysis, formerly known as the Directorate of Intelligence, serves as the analytical section of the agency—when watching a television show or movie about the CIA, the “analysts” would be under this directorate.

This directorate covers several different offices, including the Office of Terrorism Analysis, The Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center; and the Counterintelligence Center Analysis Group.

The Directorate of Support focuses on administrative functions within the agency.
The last directorate—the Directorate of Operations—is the most familiar to anyone who watches, reads, or even listens to media-based around the CIA. This directorate was formerly known as the National Clandestine Service and is the arm responsible for collecting intelligence.

Here are 11 differences that matter between the CIA and the FBI:

1. Oversight

The oversight of both organizations can get muddled, considering the number of federal departments the United States government has.

The FBI is monitored by two divisions of the federal government: the U.S. Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence. Under the Justice Department, the FBI reports to the attorney general and U.S. attorneys across the country about open cases. Within the National Intelligence umbrella, they report any intelligence activities.

The CIA reports to the Director of National Intelligence, much like the FBI. The CIA website states in its Myths section that the “CIA is responsible to the American people” and operates under the guidance of the United States’ elected officials. Congress also closely watches the CIA’s reporting and the programs it enacts.
But where can the FBI and CIA conduct their investigations or information gathering?

2. Domestic vs. Foreign Jurisdiction

One of the major differences between the FBI and the CIA is jurisdiction. The FBI is a domestic intelligence agency, while the CIA is a foreign intelligence agency, meaning they can only operate and collect information on foreign soil.

The FBI maintains 56 field offices and about 350 resident agencies around the United States and answers to the Department of Justice, stated their website.

Even though the FBI is a domestic agency, though, they still function internationally—but only as a part of U.S. embassies or consulates, and only for coordination with foreign security services.

But there are always exceptions to the rule. The FBI has functioned overseas in clandestine activities, just like the CIA has a limited domestic function in the form of the National Resources Division.

The National Resources Division is the only division in the CIA that is permitted to function domestically. Its main goal is conducting debriefings of U.S. citizens who have gone overseas for various reasons and to recruit foreign nationals to become CIA assets upon their return to their home countries.

3. What’s in a name?: Agent vs. Officer vs. Analyst vs. Spy

One of the most glaring differences between the CIA and the FBI is what they call their employees. The media, movies, and all sorts of television use some of these terms interchangeably when they are vastly different from agency to agency.

CIA employees are called officers, while FBI employees are called agents. The designation of “agent” is typically used when referring to some sort of law enforcement investigator on the federal level.

In the FBI, when you join, you can be expected to be called a “new agent trainee.” When you make it through the training program, that’s when you get the title of “special agent”—the agents you typically read about or watch on television.

CIA vs. FBI: 11 differences that matter

From there, as you progress through the ranks of a senior special agent and supervisory special agent, it brings to you the assistant special agent-in-charge or the ASAC, then the special agent-in-charge, or the SAC.

And don’t get the terms “secret agent” and “special agent” confused—the “secret agent” is something reserved for spy movies.

In both organizations, you have analysts, but regardless of what their job description is, they don’t go out into the field like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Most of those “analysts” are doing jobs in the CIA offices in Langley or occasionally overseas.

All CIA employees are considered officers, serving in all sorts of capacities, including researchers, graphic designers, mechanics, nurses, and IT techs.
Just within the Directorate of Operations—the clandestine arm of the CIA—there are four main categories of officers: operations officers, collection management officers, staff operations officers, and specialized skills officers.

The operations officers, or case officers, fall into the media portrayal of “handler” but are much less glamorous—they look for non-U.S. citizens, recruit them, and develop those people as assets. The “asset” in this case is what the CIA would call an “agent“, or a foreign national who is willing to spy for the U.S. government.

Collection Management officers do just that—collect information. They are what many may call an “analyst” in the media; they organize, collect, and analyze the information, but are still called officers.

Staff operations officers also fall into that supposed category of “analyst”— they work within the CIA headquarters and support, plan, and guide covert activities.

Specialized skills officers cover what the media understands as the “spy”—the individual in the field, completing in-person human intelligence operations or conducting covert operations, like in the case of the paramilitary operations officer.

All of these jobs are thrown into the categories of “handler,” “agent,” “spy,” and “analyst” when they’re doing so much more specialized work—or that word doesn’t describe what they’re doing at all.

4. Informants vs. Spies

Like previously mentioned, the CIA cultivates “agents” or what we would consider spies to inform on their home country to the United States. But how does this compare to the FBI?

Both organizations cultivate informants. The FBI has used informants in the past to help with investigations, even if that information gathering requires lying or intrusion into privacy on the informants’ end. Much care is taken when vetting these informants and the FBI follows strict policies before putting these citizens into harm’s way.

These informants are not considered employees of the FBI, nor are they trained, but sometimes may receive compensation, their website states.

5. Slang: The Company vs. G-men

These informants and foreign agents, along with the handlers, spies, analysts, officers—considering all these terminologies, they could get confusing. Each agency seems to have its language.

G-man. The Agency. The Company. They’re thrown around constantly in media and on the news. But how do slang terms differentiate between the two organizations?

There’s a significant difference! The term “G-man” came about in the 1920s and is short for “government man”, which references an agent of the FBI.

“The Agency” and “The Company” are both colloquial references to the CIA. But these aren’t the only terms thrown around—like “backstopping,” or creating a cover identification for an officer. Some terms are used by both agencies, along with other law enforcement agencies and the public, like planting a “bug” or a listening device. But even though they share a term for it, there’s a distinct difference between agencies on what they use to get their job done.

Learn more about the FBI HERE.

6. Field Equipment: Firearms and more

When FBI agents are out in the field, they use their typical law enforcement equipment, such as their Bureau-issued firearms. When appropriate, specialized teams like the Hostage Rescue Team will use whatever weapons they require, stated the FBI website.

CIA field officers, typically those under the Special Activities Division, do not carry or use any equipment that may link them to the United States government. That means no military uniforms, dog tags, identification, or firearms. These officers function under what is called “non-official covers” and if they are caught carrying guns or conducting these covert activities, they can be disavowed—which is a very good reason for them not to carry weapons, even in life-threatening situations. Most CIA officers when working covertly function under an “official cover,” meaning they have diplomatic immunity if caught.

7. Covert vs. Overt Operations

Many of the actions conducted by the CIA are covert operations, specifically within the Directorate of Operations, or the National Clandestine Service. Within this directorate, there are several divisions, including the Counterterrorism Center, Counterintelligence Center, and Special Activities Center.

The Special Activities Center covers covert action and paramilitary operations. Officers working in this division are assigned to either the Special Operations Group, which serves in a paramilitary capacity and the Political Action Group, which covers covert political actions.

CIA vs. FBI: 11 differences that matter

One difference to note is that all activities under this division are operations in which the government does not want to be associated, giving the government plausible deniability, but putting their officers at risk for foreign punishment.

Because of this policy of plausible deniability, many of the stars on the Memorial Wall at the CIA Headquarters in Langley represent paramilitary operations officers killed in the line of duty.

The Political Action Group provides a similar type of covert action—they focus on psychological operations, economic warfare, and pushing political influence.

The FBI, on the other hand, functions within the realm of investigative secrecy—once cases are solved, the details are typically declassified.

8. Classified vs. Top Secret vs. Secret vs. SSBI

But how do you keep track of that declassified information? What does “classified” really mean? What’s the highest level of secrecy?

Classified information is any sort of information that a government could consider sensitive and should be protected. This information is sectioned off into classifications of sensitivity, with each one requiring more clearance than the next.

Regardless of the agency, the classifications are the same for information. “Top secret” is the highest level of classified information, with much of it being compartmented off, known as “sensitive compartmented information,” or SCI. SCI information is not part of the classification system; rather, it can fall in any of the classifications and be sectioned off to only those with the appropriate clearance.

“Secret” is the next level down, which could cause damage to national security if it were public.

“Confidential” is the next level, then “official,” and then “unclassified.” While both agencies use this categorical system, they do not fall within the same categories—much of the work the FBI does is traditionally confidential, while the CIA functions under the realm of secrecy in the “top secret” category.

According to the CIA website, they “adhere to a strict ‘need-to-know’ policy regarding classified information.” Most CIA information falls into the “top secret” category, with more of it being compartmentalized through the SCI system.

The FBI, on the other hand, typically shares information with local or state law enforcement at an unclassified level. Most classified information shared through the FBI is considered “secret,” although all FBI agents are vetted for top-secret clearance.

9. Social Lives

But how does knowing all this confidential and classified information affect your social life?

While telling everyone you work at the CIA is frowned upon, they have a policy on telling your spouse or long-term partner that you work for the CIA. Some people work at the CIA undercover and others do not need covers.

Any officers working under the Directorate of Operations are required to go through one to two years of training—including courses at Camp Peary. Regardless of whether they’re working home or abroad, these individuals must remain undercover to protect themselves and their loved ones.

While FBI agents do not have to lie to anyone about the job they do, they are required to keep the information confidential, like many other representatives in law enforcement. This is outlined in both agencies’ training.

10. Training

When joining the FBI, a trainee will attend the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. During the 20 week training, trainees will learn investigation, fundamentals of law, behavioral science, forensic science, and more. They prepare for their careers by learning about the different branches of the FBI, along with physical fitness and defense tactics, states their website.

The CIA, on the other hand, has several training locations, including the CIA University, the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, and the Warrenton Training Center. They also have two classified mission training areas at Harvey Point and Camp Peary.

Located in Chantilly, Virginia, the CIA university is the CIA’s main education facility, created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Holding about 200 courses a year, each course lasts several weeks and teaches basics such as communications, information technology, and project management—and other necessary skills such as defensive driving, weapons training, and about the intelligence community as a whole.

While new hires are taught at the school, it is also open to other U.S. intelligence agencies like the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The other more traditional educational facility is the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence in Reston, Virginia, which functions as an arm of the CIA University and primarily teaches intelligence analysis.

The Warrenton Training Center in Northern Virginia, Camp Peary near Williamsburg, Virginia, and Harvey Point Defense Training Activity in eastern North Carolina all function as classified complexes for the CIA.

Various government agencies, including the FBI, have used these locations as training facilities. Camp Peary, known as “The Farm”, and Harvey Point, known as “The Point” are both used by the CIA as covert training facilities and are not open to the public. And even though officers or agents aren’t getting into high-speed chases every day, their day-to-day tasks vary.

11. Day to Day Tasks

Although some media portrays it otherwise, the tasks of the FBI and CIA are vastly different.

A “typical day” as the FBI website calls it can consist of testifying in federal court, executing search warrants, making an arrest, or gathering intelligence. Some agents work in specialized areas like training or public affairs, but they are on call 24/7.

While the media portrays the CIA as car chases, shootouts, and more danger, in reality, it’s much different. Covert operatives like James Bond or Ethan Hunt would be disavowed for their behavior overseas—officers should be undetected, and if they are, they give their official cover story.

But not all CIA officers work in the field—many of them have a 9-to-5 position within offices around the world and at the headquarters in Virginia.

At the end of the day, both agencies are working to protect our country through intelligence gathering or investigation. To recap, the main difference between the CIA and FBI include:

  • The FBI is monitored under the U.S. Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence, while the CIA reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence and Congress.
  • The FBI is a federal, domestic law enforcement agency, while the CIA gathers foreign intelligence and can only function abroad.
  • The FBI hires agents while the CIA employs officers.
  • The FBI uses informants, while the CIA recruits agents to spy abroad.
  • The term “G-man” is used to describe FBI agents, while “The Company” or “the Agency” refers to the CIA.
  • The FBI carries guns, while CIA field officers do not.
  • The FBI functions overtly, while the CIA functions covertly.
  • The FBI investigates crimes usually at the “secret” level, while the CIA functions under the “top secret” classification.
  • FBI agents can share with the public that they are an FBI agent, while CIA officers typically keep that information to immediate family.
  • FBI agents learn how to do their job at Quantico, while CIA officers learn at several places, including Camp Peary.
  • An FBI agent’s typical day is generally law enforcement, while a CIA officer’s day can vary based on their job.


What are the differences between the FBI and the DEA?

The Drug Enforcement Administration is only focused on enforcing drug laws, where the FBI is the main law enforcement agency for the United States. Both agencies work closely together on cases.

What’s the difference between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives?

The ATF focuses on federal laws regarding alcohol and firearms, along with investigating arsons and bombings. During those cases, the ATF and the FBI work together to investigate.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.