Central Intelligence Agency

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as its purpose, collects a broad range of information to analyze its meaning and report its significance to the president of the United States and other government policymakers. To obtain this information, the CIA has within its organizational structure several collection disciplines such as technical collection, human collection, and open collection, along with cyber and audio technology to assist in gathering information. CIA surveillance methods are some of the most complicated, intrusive, and wide-ranging regarding the ability available to policymakers. Historically, the United States has relied on the information provided through CIA surveillance methods to make significant foreign policy decisions. This analysis explains how the CIA participates in surveillance and the intelligence process, and it supplies an overview of surveillance methods such as technical intelligence and its subcategories, which include communications intelligence, electronic intelligence, and photoreconnaissance. Furthermore, this entry includes an overview of human intelligence, open source intelligence, bugs, and other devices, along with the challenges CIA surveillance methods pose when dealing with the threats of terrorism.

CIA Surveillance

The CIA is directed to collect and analyze information as requested by the president of the United States and other policymakers. The goal of the CIA in answering such requests is to assess what is happening and why it is happening and predict what will likely follow and its meaning for the interests of the United States. To organize their collection of information, the CIA has five primary directorates: (1) the Directorate of Operations, (2) the Directorate of Analysis, (3) the Directorate of Science and Technology, (4) the Directorate of Support, and (5) the Directorate of Digital Innovation. Each directorate has responsibilities that add to the surveillance ability of the CIA.

The Directorate of Operations is mostly responsible for the clandestine collection of foreign intelligence, with human intelligence methods as its primary source of surveillance. The Directorate of Analysis takes the information surveyed and produces reports, such as briefings, that explain foreign policy issues. It is through analysis that the collected information can be interpreted for policymakers to use in their decision making. The Directorate of Science and Technology collects information through technical surveillance methods and continues to develop new scientific and technical methods that will innovate the surveillance abilities of the CIA. The Directorate of Digital Innovation works on producing digital and cyber surveillance methodologies, along with exploring the information technology infrastructure. It is through these directorates that the CIA uses counterterrorism surveillance, cyber surveillance, and economic, leadership, military, and political surveillance, among others.

From its origin, the CIA has been committed to surveying a host of governments and groups, gathering information in hopes of gaining intelligence from the material. The history of the CIA surveillance is one of progress and failure, beginning with the mission to only keep track and inform policymakers of international news. From here, the CIA has partaken in a broad range of covert actions and surveillance methods that have received both praise and condemnation. With the Cold War, the CIA began to emerge as an intelligence powerhouse and structured itself to better collect intelligence regarding the Soviet Union. Multiple surveillance strategies were used, and many were invented through the purpose of spying on the Soviet Union. With the rise of new technologies such as satellites, the CIA could widen its surveillance abilities, which has a wide range of implications on the United States and international affairs.

Intelligence Process

The CIA is often challenged by whether more resources should be given to surveillance methods or to processing and exploitation, often ending with surveillance being given more of a priority. This results in the CIA having much more information than intelligence. Another challenge is that the CIA is often not given clear priorities of what to look for while being requested to produce intelligence on an individual issue. Once the information is analyzed, the CIA disseminates the intelligence to policymakers through reports and briefings such as through the President’s Daily Brief and the World-Wide Intelligence Review.

Overview and Challenges of CIA Surveillance

The CIA determines the methods used to collect information primarily through two factors: (1) the nature of the intelligence requested and (2) the various ways in which the information can be collected. Therefore, the CIA has different collection disciplines that focus on many modes of surveillance. It is a goal of the CIA to have collection synergy, whereby several different types of surveillance are combined, providing a more thorough gathering of information, which can, in turn, be analyzed. Also, a strategy of “all-source intelligence” allows for the lack of information collected by one surveillance method to be alleviated by the information gathered by other means. For example, it was through all-source intelligence that information was gathered from Human Intelligence and Signals and Geospatial-Intelligence that led to the information necessary to locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Another challenge that affects CIA surveillance is the wheat versus chaff dilemma. Here, the CIA collects a lot of information, but because that information is primarily useless until analyzed, the CIA is slowed in its mission of disseminating its intelligence to policymakers. A significant imbalance of information and intelligence affects the CIA, and although it is working on means to expedite process and exploitation of its collected information (e.g., through technology that automatically examines data such as images, and cross-checks them through a library of images already collected), this imbalance still occurs.

Technical Surveillance

Technical surveillance includes communication intelligence, electronic intelligence, and photoreconnaissance. Here, information, in the form of data or images, is collected by highly sophisticated equipment on planes, ships, submarines, radio and electronic intercept stations, radars, and satellites. The sensors or devices used for technical surveillance consist of always-improving high-resolution and wide-angle cameras, infrared cameras, data receivers, radars, and the like. Historically, the development of technical surveillance has resulted in the invention of highly specialized data processors, along with new surveillance fields, such as cryptanalysis, traffic analysis, photographic interpreters, telemetry, radar, and signal analysis. Because the information received through technical surveillance comes in as real data, these new fields were needed to interpret the data and turn them into easily discernable information to supply to policymakers.

Communications and Electronic Intelligence

Electronic intelligence is the interception of radio waves of a noncommunicative type—such as those from radars. Electronic intelligence is mostly used to detect and track hostile aircraft and missiles. However, another form of electronic intelligence, called radar intelligence, also falls under the classification of electronic intelligence. For example, radar intelligence can observe a missile in flight. These electronic surveillance methods allow the CIA to survey the military capabilities of a nation, such as when a target country tests a new weapon. Through tracking the signals released by, for example, a missile test, the CIA can analyze the capabilities and effects new weapons may pose against the United States.


Surveillance through the means of images, in which photos are taken of facilities, equipment, or forces, emerged while using airplanes flying over targeted complexes. With the progress in aeronautics, photoreconnaissance as a means of surveillance also progressed. For example, in 1955, the CIA began a project constructing a long-range, high-altitude, photoreconnaissance aircraft. This aircraft became known as U-2 and revolutionized the CIA’s surveillance capabilities. The U-2 plane was the surveillance method used to detect Soviet missiles in the 1960s and was continually used to survey Cuba, alerting the CIA, and therefore the president, in the incident that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Similar to how airplanes revolutionized photoreconnaissance, satellites have proven even more explosive in surveillance capabilities. The CIA currently uses several different types of satellites, including those with low earth orbits, medium earth orbits, geosynchronous orbits, sun-synchronous orbits, and highly elliptical orbits. Low earth orbits ranges from 200 to 1,000 miles above Earth’s surface and allows for a detailed view of the CIA’s targets. Medium earth orbits are around 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface, and geosynchronous orbits allow a satellite to stay over the same spot above Earth in a fixed orbit. At this same height, sun-synchronous orbits move along with earth rotations so that the satellite always remains where there is sunlight hitting Earth. Finally, highly elliptical orbits allow for the satellite to come closer to Earth while over the Southern Hemisphere at a distance of about 300 miles, and then travel further away while over the Northern Hemisphere at a distance of about 25,000 miles. This pattern, coming in close around the Southern Hemisphere and moving farther away over the Northern Hemisphere, allows for the satellite to revolve around the earth two times a day. This is useful because as the satellite approaches the Southern Hemisphere, it speeds up rapidly, and slows down significantly around the Northern Hemisphere, allowing the satellite to be over the Northern Hemisphere 16 out of 24 hours a day.

The decision on which satellite to use depends on the nature of the intelligence being collected. A challenge for satellites is that they can take images only of facilities, equipment, or forces that are not covered. However, most nation-states are susceptible to photoreconnaissance surveillance as they are unable to hide all of their military capabilities under cover, and they routinely partake in training exercises under a rigid timetable. However, within the 21st century, private satellite photo capabilities have emerged, giving the private sector power to take similar images.

With the emergence of satellites came the desire to eliminate foreign nations’ satellites. During the Cold War, the idea of antisatellite weapons was conceived, and some were built and tested. However, they were never implemented within the time frame of the Cold War. In 2011, though, China successfully destroyed one of its old weather satellites, proving the potential of antisatellite weapons to be a cause for concern again.

Human Intelligence

The agent acquisition cycle begins with the clandestine service operator identifying an individual who has access to information that the CIA desires. These individuals usually work within a branch of a targeted nation’s government. The clandestine service operator then assesses the individual, gaining his or her trust and evaluating the potential weaknesses that moving ahead with the selected individual may pose. This part of the process is known as the validation process, in which the clandestine service operator guarantees the likelihood that this individual will prove successful and, therefore, moves ahead with the cycle. After being validated, the clandestine service operator begins recruiting the individual—pitching the individual the idea of working alongside the clandestine service operator to survey information desired by the CIA. The reasons that the individual may accept the offer are often different, whether it be for money, dissatisfaction with his or her government or job, or the excitement following the idea of spying. If the individual accepts, the clandestine service operator continues to handle the individual, gaining information from him or her and being the individual’s liaison to the CIA. Once the necessary information is collected, or for various other reasons, such as the individual not supplying adequate information, the clandestine service operator terminates the relationship with the individual, ending the cycle. It should be mentioned, however, that the individual may rely on other people that he or she is connected to in order to gain information and then supply such information to the clandestine service operator. This method is simply called “subsources.”

The CIA uses several methods concerning human intelligence. An example of such is the use of what is termed “sleepers.” Sleepers are inserted into a target region by the CIA and spend time, sometimes years, integrating themselves into the community. At a time that the CIA determines necessary, the sleeper is then activated and begins his or her mission of collecting information and communicating the findings to the CIA. There are numerous reasons for the implantation of sleepers, such as if time is needed for the spy to gain the trust of peers. Like clandestine service operators, sleepers will be given either an official or unofficial cover. An official cover is usually that of the operator holding another type of government job, such as working with an Embassy. This kind of cover is useful as it allows for diplomatic immunity if the operator is revealed. An unofficial cover allows for the operator to have no clear connection to his or her government. However, an unofficial cover makes communicating with the CIA more difficult as the operator needs to separate himself or herself from the CIA and the government. In this instance, the operator also needs a cover, a reason for being in the nation. Historically, these covers have been wide-ranging; however, many have posed as journalists.

Human intelligence, through clandestine service operators, has proved the least successful regarding gathering information compared with other forms of intelligence, such as technical intelligence. While spying on the Soviet Union and Communist China during the 20th century, clandestine service operators supplied little useful intelligence. A main reason behind this failure is the difficulty for a clandestine service operator to penetrate the inner workings of a government, where valuable information is communicated. However, the CIA has had some success with different subcategories of human intelligence, such as defectors.

Another method for human intelligence is that of walk-in sources, commonly referred to as defectors. These are individuals who voluntarily supply information to the CIA. Defectors usually provide the CIA with names, places, dates, and other information that may be used to identify foreign agents or any other information that would be deemed useful to the United States. Therefore, defectors are most likely to be of value to the CIA immediately after they arrive and offer aid, as they may be able to identify their former colleagues and their operations. However, a challenge with the use of defectors is the possibility that they are dangels, individuals who volunteer with the idea of entrapment. The dangles may supply false information that leads the CIA astray or volunteer to gain information about the CIA’s intelligence process.

Concerning human intelligence, the CIA also partakes in physical surveillance. Here, a clandestine service operator investigates and surveys foreign intelligence operators and their contacts. For physical surveillance to occur, the CIA must identify foreign intelligence officers and then watch their activities, communicating their findings to analyze the significance of the interactions. This process is often time-consuming and requires various operators to complete the surveillance process. For example, as a rule of thumb, it takes at least six people and three cars to follow one person 24 hours a day without being identified.

The CIA may also use Access Agents who are recruited by the CIA and are close to the target. These Access Agents then supply information regarding the identity and location, sometimes keeping track, of the target individual. Using Access Agents allows for the CIA to allocate its resources from physical surveillance to other means of surveillance.

Another human intelligence strategy is to use double agents to learn the techniques and priorities of a foreign government. These double agents may be defectors from their governments coming to the CIA voluntarily or may be recruited by a clandestine service operator to gather information. The use of double agents is oftentimes dangerous and may result in the effect of dangle, as previously explained.

Finally, the CIA may also use liaisons with foreign governments and intelligence agencies to gather information. This process, commonly practiced between nations with military or economic alliances, allows for the sharing of information that would have been previously unavailable to the CIA. This process is often opened through the CIA supplying the liaison with money, equipment, information, or privileges on U.S. soil. Overall, the use of liaisons to gain information proves useful as some governments are more capable of intruding into a target nation if they have better national relations with the target nation than the United States does.

A challenge for human intelligence is the prospect of clandestine service operators and analysists to turn on the CIA, as how the CIA works to turn foreign government officials against their own nations. In this case, a CIA operative or analyst becomes a double agent—known as a mole—against the agency, supplying a foreign government’s intelligence agency with classified information regarding the inner workings of the CIA, intelligence gathered by the CIA, the aims of the CIA, or the names of covert agents working abroad. The process of how this occurs is similar to how the CIA attempts to gain an informant in a foreign nation, and this has historically been in return for money.

Surveillance tactics used in this manner to identify a foreign spy or a mole within one’s own agency is called counterintelligence. The methods regarding counterintelligence are like those of the surveillance methods used by the CIA in their operations to collect intelligence of foreign governments. The main difference, however, is who the surveillance is aimed at, and in the aforementioned example, the CIA’s wide range of surveillance methodology was used against one of its own.

Open Sources

The CIA also uses open sources to gain useful information that may prove significant to U.S. priorities. For example, the CIA may collect and analyze foreign media, public data, and professional and academic publications. Surveillance through open sources is valuable for the CIA as it allows for a large amount of easily collected information. To analyze open sources, the CIA has two main departments for this process: (1) the Open Source Center and (2) the Open Source Works.

The Open Source Center focuses on the content of the media, especially how the media are reporting the news. By analyzing how the media of a target nation are reporting news, an analysis may be configured on what the national view is on an individual subject. For example, if a nation reports on the U.S. drone strike on Syria as an act of war against Syria, the CIA may be able to understand that nation’s policy on the Syrian–U.S. conflict better. The other department within the CIA that surveys open sources is the Open Source Works. It is the mission of the Open Source Works to translate foreign open source information and use such information to answer pertinent questions relating to the incidents in that nation.

Overall, open source collection is useful for the CIA to anticipate the direction of a foreign covert action or confirm already collected intelligence. Furthermore, open sources allow for the CIA to better understand the mind-set of potential recruits or potential enemies to the United States. Understanding what situations are motivating an individual to act allows the CIA to predict the outcomes and, possibly, allows for intervention to take place.

Bugs and Other Intelligence Devices

Within the CIA, the Technical Services Division is responsible for developing new equipment that can be used to assist in the Human Intelligence branch. Often, these devices prove useless outside of the use by individual clandestine service operators. Reports of such devices outline an array of odd and unusual devices, commonly thought of as spy tools. For instance, the Technical Services Division has reportedly created pens that dispense ink not visible to the plain eye; rear-view mirrors that show not the area behind the vehicle, but rather the back seat passengers; and recording devices inserted in personal objects, such as watches, pens, and glasses.

The CIA also famously “bugs” rooms in which target individuals are suspected of communicating. Surveillance devices, such as audio- and video-recording technologies, may be placed in a room before the target individuals arrive. So doing requires detailed planning, mapping the room, and searching for optimal locations to hide the surveillance devices. This methodology requires human personnel to position the audio or video recorders within the room, leading clandestine service operators to either place the devices themselves or recruit individuals to do so for them. The emergence of this type of surveillance technology has caused the CIA to attempt to recruit not only government officials but also individuals such as janitors, or other low-level personnel, who work with the CIA.

Terrorism and CIA Surveillance

Current CIA surveillance of terrorist networks often focuses on what is termed chatter. Chatter refers to the patterns of communication between terrorists, keeping track of who is talking to whom, and at what rate they are communicating. Whenever there is a change in the rate of this chatter, the CIA perceives this as an indication of development toward the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Chatter also allows for link analysis, whereby the CIA establishes connections between various individuals and then continues to survey those people. The goal is that by surveying individual terrorists, the CIA can learn about the aims and methods of the wider terrorist network.

Human intelligence concerning terrorism has also proved difficult. Terrorist networks are organized within a close group of individuals who have likely known one another for years, restricting the ability of Clandestine Agents to penetrate the inner circle. Even if a Clandestine Agent could infiltrate a terrorist network, the agent would be required to partake in terrorist attacks, which raises many ethical dilemmas concerning how far a Clandestine Agent should go in his or her mission of collecting information. Furthermore, inserting a Clandestine Agent into a terrorist network is also extremely dangerous, in the sense that if the identity of the agent were to be discovered, the agent would likely be immediately eliminated. This is different from traditional state actors uncovering the identity of a Clandestine Service Agent, as in most cases historically, they have only been imprisoned or expelled from the region.

To better enact surveillance methods to collect information on terrorists, the CIA made changes to its photoreconnaissance strategies. For example, the CIA began to purchase commercial satellite images from private companies to subsidize some satellite images collected. Doing so also prevented other sources, such as foreign governments and journalists, from purchasing such intelligence. Furthermore, the CIA began implementing the use of drones, unmanned aircraft supplied with imagery capabilities, to better survey terrorist networks. There are three advantages of using drones for surveillance collection. First, they can fly closer to target areas and remain close, unlike satellites that must make an orbital pass, and continue. Second, drones do not put human life in danger as they can be flown from sometimes thousands of miles away. Finally, drones supply real-time imagery and video to the CIA. A downfall of drones is the large amount of information that is collected, which must be processed. For example, in 2009, drones reportedly collected 200,000 hours of video, proving the review of such information extremely difficult.

CIA and U.S. Affairs

CIA surveillance, and its many methods, has resulted in influencing how U.S. policymakers make decisions, and therefore has guided U.S. foreign policy since its origin. Rising during the Cold War, the CIA, through collecting and analyzing intelligence, alerted policymakers to incidents that were a threat to the security of the United States. For example, in the early 1960s, the Cuban Missile Crisis along with the events leading to the Bay of Pigs invasion were both surveyed by the CIA. With regard to the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was through the CIA’s photoreconnaissance that images depicting the growth of missiles and military personnel on Cuba were collected. With regard to the Bay of Pigs invasion, it was the information gathered about troop formation (or the lack thereof) that led to President John F. Kennedy pushing forward on the ultimately dire mission. In both cases, it was because of the surveillance measures taken by the CIA that policymakers acted.

Overall, the surveillance methods enacted by the CIA are meaningful regarding the ability of policymakers to make informed decisions about foreign relations. Since the intelligence reform of the CIA in the 1990s, the agency has grown more capable in its abilities and continues to research new ways to gather intelligence in the 21st century such as through the Internet. Although the days of covert human intelligence gathering are most likely over, technical means of surveillance is expected to grow. Furthermore, one should expect that the CIA will continue far into the 21st century as the nation’s powerhouse for surveillance, covering all forms of surveillance and reaching into the corners of targets’ homes via computers, smartphones, or, possibly, a clandestine service operator watching from across the street.

R. Bruce Anderson and Patrick Webb

See also Counterintelligence ; Espionage ; Intelligence Community ; Military Intelligence ; Spies ; Threat Assessment ; United States

Further Readings

Borosage, Robert L., & John Marks. The CIA File. New York, NY: Grossman, 1976.

Godson, Roy. Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: U.S. Covert Action and Counterintelligence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2008.

Lowenthal, Mark M. Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2017.

Ranelagh, John. The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. London, England: Sceptre, 1988.