The World's Foreign Intelligence Organizations
I periodically get asked which is the best intelligence agency in the world. There are a number of articles that try to answer that question by coming up with a numbered system that ranks intelligence organizations. Today I thought I would take a crack at it but I need to lay down some parameters. First, we are only going to discuss foreign intelligence agencies. By this, I mean intelligence agencies whose primary focus is collecting foreign intelligence, and spying on foreign countries. They steal other nations' secrets. This will exclude domestic organizations, such as the FBI, who primarily operate in their own countries to catch spies or conduct operations against the citizens of that country. We will also deal only with organizations that have a large role outside their nation's borders. Many nations do not have any foreign intelligence agencies, so they will not be included here. The security services of these nations are principally focused on internal monitoring or in extreme cases the suppression of dissent and threats against the government.
Comparing internal security services and foreign intelligence services would be somewhat like mixing apples and oranges. The local service has most of the advantages. You can take a large and sophisticated intelligence service, such as the Russian SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), and drop them into a small country, say Paraguay, and the Russians would be at a disadvantage. In such a small country the Russians might have 5 SVR officers, though more likely none. While the Paraguayan security service can have a thousand personnel—they can control telephones, surveillance, observation posts, etc. There are ways to defeat this threat but at the start, the Russians, one of the best intelligence services in the world, would find themselves at a disadvantage against one of the smallest services in the world.
Some nations have combined internal and external services. These intelligence services, like the former KGB, have a combined leadership and resource structure with various departments handling different duties. When we come across these types of services we will deal primarily with the foreign intelligence part of the agency.
I have also not included military intelligence organizations that are not the principal foreign intelligence organization, with some exceptions, in order to keep this blog post to a manageable length. There are more military intelligence organizations than civilian and most do low-level analyses and collection on foreign militaries. As a result, you will not see Chinese military intelligence covered but you will see Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) because the latter is Pakistan's sole intelligence agency.
I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of all the world's organizations. Throughout my career, I have worked with or against over 50 foreign intelligence organizations but, as you can imagine, there are hundreds of these agencies. So my knowledge will have its limitations. If anyone disagrees or has additional information, believes a particular intelligence agency should be ranked higher or lower, or added, I would love to hear from you.
I believe a tier ranking system works better than just a numerical 1-10 or 1-20 system. A tier system ranks organizations by abilities without one being necessarily better than the other. Intelligence agencies have successes and failures, good days and bad days. There will be major successes—look at the Russian KGB, the predecessor of the SVR, and their recruitment of the Cambridge Five (see below). This was a major success and could lead some to say that the KGB was the best intelligence organization. However, even the greatest sports teams have bad days, lose games, and perform terribly at times. Yet what makes a team great is they sustain an overall high performance over a season and multiple seasons to remain a top team. We need to put these individual successes and failures aside and look more at long-term, sustained success and failure to properly evaluate intelligence organizations.
Intelligence organizations should be evaluated on several key factors. The most important factor is professionalism. By this I mean a top-tier organization will have well-trained, highly motivated, professional personnel who get the job done consistently. Without this, no intelligence organization can succeed over the long term. This includes good compensation. I have witnessed various organizations devolve into corruption and incompetence as a result of low pay, leading to low morale, leading to corruption. This professionalism includes a stringent selection process based on merit and ability rather than who one knows so that top-notch candidates are selected. An integrated, unbiased, real-world training program is a must in order to produce capable officers.
The second factor is resources —money, people, and technology are essential to success. The more of these things you have the greater your successes will be. Thirdly, a top-tier organization will also have reach. Reach is the ability to operate more or less worldwide in a variety of operational environments. This includes operating in environments that operations officers would consider highly restrictive, Moscow springs to mind, and even dangerous, such as numerous conflict zones. All these factors translate into capabilities, being able to harness your people and resources to meet any intelligence collection challenge, be it human or technical. This is the reason governments turn to their intelligence services to deal with difficult and complex national security problems.
Finally, we should look at the impact intelligence services have on their nation's national security. All of the above are useless unless the intelligence service can provide their government with the information necessary to defend the nation and the government actually listens to that particular intelligence organization.
I did not base the tier ranking on how powerful a particular agency is. There are many intelligence organizations that wield immense power in their home countries but lack the ability to collect intelligence overseas in any meaningful way. For example, Pakistan's ISI is arguably the most powerful institution in that country. It can make or break governments, but that alone does not make a true, professional Tier 1 intelligence agency.
Tier 1: The Tier 1 intelligence services have all the factors—they are well resourced and have highly trained professionals with a worldwide reach. They form an important part of a nation's national security decision-making process. In this section, you will find the usual suspects. Heading the list will be the CIA and SVR. Not much needs to be said. They are large, capable, well-resourced organizations that operate all over the world. Despite failures, both have generally delivered the information necessary for decision-making. The successes of these organizations, by definition, remain secret, and the common person does not have real knowledge of what these organizations have accomplished. Only when an operation fails does the civilian world get a glimpse of the scope of operations. The Cambridge Five is a great example. The Russian intelligence agency, KGB, was able to recruit five British college students with no access to any information of value, but the KGB understood how the British class system worked; they instinctively knew these men would rise in the British government just because of their place in society. At one point their penetration of British MI5 was on track to being head of that service. An astounding accomplishment and a demonstration of the KGB's patience.
Some discussion, however, of the various Russian intelligence agencies is merited. During the Soviet Union, the KGB, a civilian organization even though it maintained military ranks, reigned supreme in Russia. It combined foreign and domestic intelligence as well as signals intelligence, Secret Service-type duties, and even spied on the GRU, Russian military intelligence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence underwent a series of changes, dividing various KGB responsibilities among new organizations. Foreign intelligence went to the SVR, domestic security to the FSB (Federal Security Service), and a new protective agency. An interesting thing happened over time, the SVR lost power and influence to the other organizations, primarily the FSB and GRU. The latter two are now at least as equally important as the SVR in the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence, and the GRU has assumed an outsized role in covert action. As a result, Russia has three Tier 1 organizations dealing with foreign intelligence.
Included in Tier 1 are the Chinese. In the last 30 years the Chinese intelligence service, primarily the Second Bureau of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), has become a major foreign intelligence organization. They initially focused on recruiting overseas Chinese because it was easier for them, but have now become a full-service spy organization, capable of recruiting a variety of sources and demonstrating patience and imagination in their operations. Of particular note is their targeting of vast amounts of electronic information that they use not only for counterintelligence purposes but also for targeting individuals for recruitment.
Also included in Tier 1 are smaller intelligence organizations with limited resources in comparison with the CIA and SVR, but for a variety of reasons, they stand within Tier 1. At the top of the heap is Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), aka MI6. This comes as no surprise to anyone. Smaller than the big three listed above, SIS sits among the Tier 1 agencies because of its global reach, being able to operate anywhere in the world in any environment, and the training and professionalism of its officers. Given the UK's long history of intelligence operations stretching back hundreds of years, they remain masters of what they called the great game.
We have to include Israel's Mossad among the ranks of the world's top intelligence organizations. While smaller than other Tier 1 agencies, Mossad is relatively well resourced, has a global presence as needed, and highly trained and professional officers. Despite having worldwide reach, Mossad benefits from its singular focus on operating against its Middle Eastern enemies. The more focused an intelligence agency is on a target the better it is able to deploy resources to it. Mossad also benefits from the fact that the Jewish diaspora provides it with candidates that can pass as nationals of other countries because they were at one time citizens of different nations before immigrating to Israel. This has made Israel a master of false flag operations, where an officer of one intelligence service passes himself or herself off as belonging to another. This allows Mossad to pose as a Russian, for example, and recruit an individual who might not otherwise cooperate with Israel. In addition, Mossad ranks at the top of the pile when it comes to imagination and risk-taking.
I would also include the French DGSE (Directorate General for External Security) in this list for the same reasons as SIS. This is an organization that operates worldwide in every intelligence environment. Like the other intelligence services, they have highly professional personnel and especially excellent coverage of former colonial possessions. They have a history of very aggressive operations that continues to this day.
All these services play an important role in their nations' decision-making and, at times, conduct various types of covert action at the behest of their governments. Of equal importance, these organizations, with the exception of the SVR and China's MSS Second Bureau, remain free from political taint. These organizations provide unfiltered intelligence without political bias. This has always been a weakness of Russia's various intelligence services, and maybe China's as well. While Russia has had an excellent track record of intelligence operations, their analysis capability, meaning what they do with the intelligence once it is collected, has been severely lacking. The SVR, and its predecessor the KGB, have been loath to speak truth to power and preferred to rely on analysis that supports the leadership's preconceived ideas and ideology.
Tier 2: This is a much harder category. There are many very good intelligence services here that could make Tier 1 but fall just short. Here I would include the remaining Five Eyes intelligence services of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (N.B. Five Eyes refers to an alliance of the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand intelligence services intended to share information of political and military value with each other.) These are highly professional services with excellent personnel but they lack the capabilities of Tier 1 organizations, having limited global reach, limited resources, and, in some circumstances, limited authority in conducting their intelligence operations. That is not to say they aren't good organizations, but they can't compete on the global stage the way Tier 1 agencies can. They do form important parts of their respective nations' decision making but they also rely heavily on Five Eyes intelligence-sharing to compensate for their lack of global reach. Relying too much on a foreign intelligence organization, no matter how closely allied, for your information is a significant weakness.
In Tier 2 I also include some regional powerhouses. India and Pakistan have important foreign intelligence organizations, ISI for Pakistan and RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) for India, that operate relatively effectively in South Asia. Both services have robust regional covert action capabilities that have been used in the past. While they have the ability to operate outside this area on a selective basis, it is a limited capability. In addition, they devote so much time collecting intelligence against each other that a wider focus suffers. ISI's main priorities are India and internal Pakistan events, which restricts its foreign collection abilities. It is interesting to study these organizations because they challenge our assumptions in some ways. It is obvious that both these organizations view each other as their primary foe and target, but both also hold the US high on the list of intelligence threats, in the top three for both.
Cuba lies squarely in Tier 2. This is an intelligence service that routinely punches above its weight, conducting some highly imaginative and daring operations, and often at the speartip of their country's security policies. The loss of Soviet backing, i.e. resources, has caused Cuba to retrench, including its intelligence service, the DGI (General Directorate for Intelligence). At one time the DGI could go toe to toe with any Western intelligence service and win at least half the time. Its officers are well trained, highly motivated, and creative. Cuban intelligence was a force to be reckoned with in Latin America and Africa, presenting a serious challenge to US interests. It has also posed a serious internal threat in the US, having recruited, that we know of, several penetrations of the US government. As a result of the changed political landscape, however, the DGI has lost a goodly amount of capability.
In Tier 2 I also include the majority of European intelligence services, such as Germany, Spain, Italy, the Scandinavians, etc. Once again, these remain highly professional intelligence services with top-notch personnel. They, however, have limited global reach, limited resources in comparison to the Tier 1 agencies, and a more narrow intelligence collection focus. Many intelligence officers from these nations have made incredible contributions to NATO and Western security, some truly amazing operations, but they remain limited by their resources and focus.
The same can be said for others in Tier 2. Jordan and Egypt have excellent regional intelligence services, conducting both foreign and domestic espionage and security. They both play vital roles in the security of their respective regimes and are key players in policy and decision-making. The heads of these services tend to be extremely powerful in their nations. Both services have fine operations officers but training and professionalism are a step behind Tier 1 and some Tier 2 services. Their focus tends to be regional, as one would expect, but their primary focus is internal threats to the regime. This negatively impacts their ability to collect intelligence against other nations. Turkey also falls into this area, with similar characteristics.
Iran falls within Tier 2. Their officers are well trained, motivated, and imaginative. They have a worldwide reach and a very robust covert action capability. They lack the resources of Tier 1 services and the negative reputation of Iran throughout large swaths of the world limit their capabilities.
Both Japan and South Korea come in Tier 2, but that is a hard call, especially for Japan. South Korea has a good intelligence service but it is, understandably, heavily focused on North Korea and has very limited foreign capability. Japan is in the same situation, only more so. It is extremely small and has a very limited focus and capability. While it has an excellent officer pool, they lack the training and experience to make them a world-class intelligence nation. Including them in Tier 2 is almost a gift.
Tier 3: Tier 3 contains the rest of the world's intelligence services. They are here for a variety of reasons. They lack professional training and personnel, hiring and promoting people based on who they know, family connections, or political loyalty rather than professionalism. They are under-resourced, heavily politicized, primarily focused on internal security, and at best, are limited to collecting intelligence on nations that border their own. They range from decent to terrible, some being little better than organized crime syndicates. That does not mean that on their home turf they are powerless. In fact, when dealing with local issues many of these services have excellent intelligence collection capabilities, but then we are moving into the realm of internal security organizations rather than traditional foreign intelligence.
I won't name these services individually, otherwise, it would look like Homer's Catalog of Ships from the Iliad (extra intelligence points for those who understand this reference). Suffice it to say that there are a few intelligence organizations with the resources to exercise worldwide capabilities, more with regional capabilities, and the majority being limited to domestic intelligence collection.