Intelligence agencies and their role in national security

A specific government agency responsible for the accumulation, examination and exploitation of information, in order to support national security, foreign policy, military and law enforcement is known as an intelligence agency.

In the current day and age the world is facing a variety of risks including international conflicts, civil wars, climate change and the ever growing threat of terrorism, national security is the main objective of any country in the world. It has been recognized for centuries that intelligence plays a significant role in ensuring a state’s national security.

The resources and means to gather information and the information itself may have changed substantially due to the advent of the information age, but the objectives remain the same even to this day.

Intelligence agencies are responsible for providing a multitude of services for their respective national governments both at state level an internationally. For example at international level it can provide intelligence to be used as a pretext to go to war while at state level it can ensure peace and stability.

Despite the importance of intelligence agencies and their widespread use they are still prone to errors. Since most of these agencies are tackling sensitive and highly volatile issues their errors can have far reaching and extremely deadly consequences. After 9/11 attacks in US and 7/7 attacks in Britain the intelligence used as a pretext to got to war with Iraq is a clear indication that intelligence agencies can still make errors.

There are two separate methods of collecting information or intelligence; the first is the overt method and the second is the covert method. A brief explanation of both these methods is given below:

Overt Method

This method relies on reviewing information from already published material like newspapers, periodicals, radio, military, trade, economic and political journals. Nowadays internet sources are also reviewed. Overt intelligence is also gathered by passive environmental scanning.

Covert Method

This method is more aggressive and quite often crosses the ethical lines as it involves gathering private and secret information of others. With modern technology covert intelligence has taken a whole new form, now phones are tapped, emails are hacked and any information stored online can be accessed by either hackers or intelligence agencies.

Role of Intelligence agencies

The role of intelligence agencies can be different depending on the goals and objectives of its respective country. However, there are many roles and services which are common in almost all the agencies in the world. These roles can be summarised as follows.

  • Provide assistance in counterintelligence and counterterrorism
  • Highlight areas of national security that need attention
  • Inform military operations and national defence planning
  • Provide timely warnings of potential crisis
  • Identify current or potential enemies and keep them under observation
  • Covertly influence events to turn them in favor of their own state
  • Protect their secrets and their sources

Since every country has its foreign policy to follow and its own objectives to achieve, each country utilises its intelligence agencies separately. Its role also depends on the type of government that is being run in the country; for instance, in a democracy these agencies are used for national security but in a dictatorship or a kingdom these agencies are used to suppress opposition and maintain strict control over people.

To have a more deeper understanding of how these agencies work both domestically and internationally we will discuss three of the best intelligence agencies in the world and their roles and duties.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – United States of America

Agency Executive: John O. Brennan, Director

Headquarters: Langley, Virginia, United States

Formed: 18 September, 1947

The main role of CIA is the collection and analysis of intelligence gathered from foreign countries that can potentially cause harm or risk for United States. The information is processed and then passed on the government officials including the President, congress members and the Department of Defense. This information is then used by the government to from its foreign policy.

Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) – United Kingdom

Agency Executive: Alex Younger

Headquarters: Vauxhall Cross, London

Formed: 1909

According to the MI 6 its main objective is to provide worldwide covert capabilities for Her Majesty’s Government. Besides gathering secret information it also carries out overseas operations to prevent threats to the national security and the economic stability of United Kingdom. It also works with other agencies like the MI 5 and the GCHQ and they report to the government ministers.

Ministry of State Security (MSS) – China

Agency Executive: Chen Wenqing, Minister of State Security

Headquarters: Beijing

Formed: 1983

The mission of Ministry of State Security is “the security of the state through effective measures against enemy agents, spies, and counter-revolutionary activities designed to sabotage or overthrow China’s socialist system” according to the Secretary General of the Commissions for Politics and Law, Liu Fuzhi. Other roles included gathering foreign intelligence from various targets all across the world.


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