An intelligence agency essentially works like a nervous system in any nation’s defense setup, which is responsible for feeding vital information to law enforcement agencies and armed forces about possible threats to national security. They collect, analyze, and exploit secretive information that is not available to common people to their own advantage.
These agencies gather information by various means, including espionage, signal gathering or intercepting, cryptanalysis, and various other methods. For those who don’t know, almost every nation has more than one operational secret service or spy agency, but mostly one stands out from the rest.
So what makes one spy agency better than another? Is it because of a colossal budget or relentless and hard training, or it’s just because of the technology they use? Well, actually, it’s a mixture of all these things. Anyway, here are the best spy agencies in the world.
13. National Intelligence Organization – Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) with MIT director Hakan Fidan during a meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey | Image Courtesy: Presidency of Turkey
Established In: 1965
Annual Budget: Approx. $300 Million (2021)
The National Intelligence Organization, or MIT (Turkish abbreviation), is the primary intelligence agency of Turkey operating directly under the head of state, the president of the Republic of Turkey. Its responsibilities include intelligence gathering, internal and external threat assessment, and counterintelligence.
The MIT is capable of conducting intelligence and covert missions around the world. A large number of known MIT operations outside Turkey is related to tracking and arresting members of the Gülen movement and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both designated as terrorist organizations by Turkey and several other nations. The organization is known to have conducted major surveillance operations in Austria, Germany, Greece, and Egypt.
12. General Intelligence Presidency – Saudi Arabia
Established In: 1955
The General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) is Saudi Arabia’s external intelligence agency with a deep presence in West Asian and North African countries. The GIP was established as an independent agency in 1955 under King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Before, all intelligence-related tasks in the country were carried out by its secret police, the Mabahith.
In 1976, the GIP became a member of the ‘Safari Club,’ a group of multinational intelligence agencies from France, Morocco, Egypt, and Iran to execute covert operations in Africa. As part of the Safari Club, the agency provided intelligence support for military intervention in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1977 and the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict in 1978.
Alongside the U.S and Pakistani foreign intelligence agencies, the Saudi GIP played a crucial role in aiding and arming Mujahideen for fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the Cold War. It was also involved in the Syrian Civil War.
11. Canadian Security Intelligence Service – Canada
Established In: 1984
Annual Budget: $512 Million (2020)
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was established on June 21, 1984, to replace the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Security Service as Canada’s primary agency to gather and analyze intelligence related to domestic security.
The CSIS is a member of the Five Eyes, an alliance of various intelligence agencies from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The alliance is perhaps the most powerful intelligence-gathering entity in the world since the Cold War.
CSIS has four components — counterintelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation. The fourth component, namely, Research, Analysis and Production (RAP), was established to better coordinate with Canada’s Intelligence Assessment department of the Privy Council Office (cabinet secretariat).
11. Research And Analysis Wing – India
Established In: 1968
India’s intelligence failure during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was a major setback for the Intelligence Bureau, the agency responsible for the country’s internal and external security at that time. To prevent such catastrophes in the future, the Government of India established Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) in 1968 as a dedicated external intelligence agency.
Its responsibilities include gathering intelligence from foreign nations concerning India’s national security. It also monitors arms and narcotics smuggling into the country. Additionally, R&AW is involved in the security of India’s nuclear installations.
The agency has had a substantial presence in Afghanistan since the 1990s. After the rise of Pakistan-backed Taliban in the country, India decided to side with the United Front (Northern Alliance) with R&AW providing necessary intelligence and logistics support.
In 2020, while responding to a tip-off by R&AW, the national intelligence agency of Afghanistan, NDS arrested several covert operatives from the Ministry of State Security (China) in Kabul. It revealed the presence of Chinese intelligence in Afghanistan for the first time.
10. Australian Secret Intelligence Services – Australia
R. G. Casey House, Headquarters of the ASIS
Established In: 1952
Annual Budget: $337 Million (2017)
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service, or ASIS, is the external component of the Australian Intelligence Community. It is tasked with gathering intelligence from overseas that concerns Australia’s domestic security and strategic interests.
The ASIS was established on 13 May 1952 by executive order. However, its existence became known publicly for the first time about two decades later, in 1972, after a news report exposed its espionage activities in the neighboring Asian countries. Most of its operations in recent years remain confidential.
During a public press conference in 2012, the Director-General of ASIS, Nick Warner, stated that the agency is increasing its foothold in some of the world’s most volatile regions. In 2013, the agency was involved in capturing a rogue Afghan soldier and suspected Taliban agent, who killed three Australian soldiers during an insider attack at a petrol base.
9. Inter-Service Intelligence – Pakistan
Established In: 1948
The Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, is the foreign intelligence agency of Pakistan. To a large extent, ISI personnel are only recruited from the three branches of the Pakistan Armed Forces. ISI is notorious for its aggressive tactics that include psychological warfare and subversion.
ISI is one of the few intelligence agencies in the world that have a dominant presence in Afghanistan to date. It played a crucial role in the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s by providing necessary logistics and intelligence support to Afghan mujahideen. ISI carried covert operations in India, Libya, Iran, and Iraq.
8. General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) – France
Established In: 1982
Annual Budget: $731 Million
The General Directorate for External Security, also known as DGSE (French abbreviation), is one of the most influential spy agencies in the world. It operates directly under the French Ministry of Armed Forces and is tasked with intelligence gathering and counterintelligence, as well as conducting special operations on foreign soil.
DGSE also specializes in economic espionage — gathering knowledge about intellectual property (industrial products, techniques, ideas) or operational information (R&D, strategies) against other countries. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, DGSE extensively spied on some of the largest tech companies in the United States. A similar account was given by former U.S Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a 2014 interview.
Over the years, the agency has been involved in multiple civil wars, coup d’état, counterterrorism, and rescue operations around the world.
7. Federal Intelligence Service (BND) – Germany
Established In: 1956
Annual Budget: US$2.1 Billion (2021)
The existing foreign intelligence agency of Germany, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), was established during the Cold War in 1956 with the help of the CIA. For years after its establishment, BND served as the only gateway for western spy agencies to closely monitor the eastern bloc. Throughout the 1960s-70s, BND was considered the best-informed intelligence agency regarding Western Asia (Middle east).
Today, the agency is responsible for gathering and analyzing information regarding international terrorism, counter-proliferation, as well as, drug trafficking and organized crime. Like the CIA, the agency is involved in mass surveillance.
In 2016, a BND officer successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between Israel and Shia Islamist militant group Hezbollah that eventually took place two years later in 2018. The agency has been a successful mediator between the two parties on previous occasions as well.
The Federal Intelligence Agency currently has the largest intelligence headquarters in the world. Inaugurated in 2019, the Berlin headquarters of BND span over an area equal to the size of 36 football fields and can handle approx. 6,500 employee.
6. Ministry of State Security – China
MSS facilities in Xiyuan, Beijing
Established In: 1983
Annual Budget: US$8 billion (2018)
The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is a civilian agency in charge of domestic and foreign intelligence gathering and counterintelligence for the People’s Republic of China.
MSS was established in its current structure in 1983 following the merger between the Central Investigation Department (the preceding foreign intelligence agency) and the counterintelligence branch of the Ministry of Public Security.
With a significant presence in all five continents, the MSS is considered one of the world’s powerful and influential intelligence agencies. The agency is notorious for its aggressive and unconventional intelligence-gathering strategies.
In recent years, the espionage activities carried out by the MSS against several host nations, including the United States, have increased significantly. According to a study, the U.S suffers economic damages anywhere between $300 billion to $445 billion annually due to Chinese cyberattacks and economic espionage.
5. Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR RF) – Russia
Established In: 1991
The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation, or SVR RF, succeeded the KGB as Russia’s external intelligence agency after the latter was disbanded in 1991. Its duties include intelligence gathering, conducting strategic and economic espionage, and protecting Russian officials overseas.
For over a decade after its formation, the SVR played a more influential role in Russia’s foreign policies than its ministry. Reportedly, it was the decisive authority on the transfer of Russian nuclear technologies to Iran.
The SVR often works together with Russia’s foreign military intelligence unit, the GRU, for espionage and covert operations in many foreign countries.
4. GCHQ and NSA
Established In: 1919 (GCHQ); 1952 (NSA)
Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, is a security organization responsible for intelligence gathering mainly through signals intelligence for the government of the United Kingdom and its armed forces. GCHQ has two components: the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) and Composite Signals Organization (GCHQ Bude).
The NCSC conducts threat assessments and provides cybersecurity-related advice to government and private organizations in the U.K. In contrast, GCHQ Bude carries much broader intelligence-gathering operations, such as satellite and cable data interception.
GCHQ’s U.S counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA), is one of the most publicized intelligence agencies in the world. NSA is responsible for gathering and analyzing security-related information from both home and abroad to assist other federal security agencies in the United States.
The NSA is involved in mass surveillance through hacking and clandestine eavesdropping programs. In terms of budget, NSA is the second-largest intelligence organization in the U.S after the CIA.
Signals intelligence, or SIGINT, is a specific intelligence-gathering discipline that involves the interception of signals. The sub-fields SIGINT include communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT). Both GCHQ and NSA are the world’s foremost security-related information gathering intelligence agencies, often collaborating in different projects.
3. Mossad – Israel
Established In: 1949
Annual Budget: US$2.7 billion
Israel’s Mossad is one of the oldest, most capable, and feared spy agencies in the world. Like the CIA, Mossad is a foreign intelligence agency. Apart from intelligence gathering, Mossad is tasked with conducting counter-terrorism and covert operations abroad. In 2017, Mossad started a technological innovation fund, Libratad, for investing in up-and-coming tech startups.
The agency has its own counter-terrorism units, namely Kidon and Metsada, for highly sensitive missions. Kidon has been described as a group of highly trained soldiers that perform high-profile assassinations and sabotage across the globe.
Most of the covert operations executed by Mossad are in the interest of the Jewish community across the world. After the Munich Massacre in 1972, the agency carried out a massive covert operation (“Wrath of God”) to track and eliminate members of the Palestinian armed militant group who were involved in the attack. The operation spanned from Italy, France, Greece, and Norway to Lebanon, Algeria, and Libya.
2. Secret Intelligence Service – The United Kingdom
SIS Building at Vauxhall Cross | Image Courtesy: Laurie Nevay
Established In: 1909
Annual Budget: $2.69 Billion (2015)
Also known as MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) is one of the most respected organizations in the spy world. The existence of SIS was officially acknowledged only in 1994, almost 9 decades after its initial establishment.
Unlike MI5, SIS’s domain is only limited to people and entities outside the British Isles. Historically, the agency was involved largely in the Second World War, Cold War, and other regional disputes all over the world.
1. Central Intelligence Agency – The United States
Established In: 1947
Annual Budget: $15 Billion (2013)
When the CIA was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, its main motive was to mediate foreign policy intelligence and analysis countrywide. Today, it is perhaps the most powerful agency in the United States Intelligence Community.
Most of the organization’s resources and manpower are spent on collecting foreign intelligence with a minimal amount of domestic data. The CIA is undoubtedly the most easily recognizable intelligence agency in the world, mostly due to the numerous mentions in international and Hollywood movies.
CIA is also one of the heavily funded government organizations in the USA. Historically, the CIA has been involved in many international controversies, including the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, political shake-ups in Syria, Indonesia, and Congo.