Intelligence agencies are the first line of defense against potential internal and external threats. They are tasked with gathering intelligence, conducting various forms of espionage, advising the government when it comes to national security matters, spreading fake information, and, in the case of some agencies, even carrying out assassinations.
But some intelligence agencies are better than others. Here are the top 10 best intelligence agencies in the world. Almost all of the intelligence agencies listed here mainly deal with external threats, so don’t expect to see agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Security Service (FSB).
10. Ministry of State Security (MSS)
Formed in 1983, the Ministry of State Security is the security agency and intelligence agency of China. It is headquartered in Beijing and has 17 known bureaus or divisions, including a counterintelligence division and a social research division.
The MSS plays a central role in censoring the internet in China, cutting off the population from the outside world and allowing the government to control what influences the Chinese people. The agency is also responsible for handling internal dissent and anything that might cause citizens to rebel against the ruling Communist Party.
The MSS is heavily involved in economic espionage, with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei being a prime suspect in helping the agency gather intelligence from around the world. With over 100,000 intelligence personnel both inside and outside China, the MSS has been able to play its part effectively, especially in regard to national security.
9. Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)
Headquartered in Canberra, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is the Down Under equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency. It mainly deals with international or foreign intelligence and typically coordinates with other similar agencies around the world.
The ASIS was formed in 1952, though the public remained unaware of its existence until 1972 when Australian tabloid newspaper The Daily Telegraph exposed the agency. Because you can always count on tabloids to dish out the dirt on anything remotely controversial in a country.
Like many other intelligence agencies, the ASIS has been involved in a number of incidents in the past. One of the most notable was in Papua New Guinea almost three decades ago. Allegedly, the ASIS has been trying to suppress independence movements in the country. The agency was also involved in the September 1973 Chilean coup d’état, despite being ordered to pull out months earlier.
8. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)
Canada is one of the safest countries in the world. Most of the credit for keeping the country safe goes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the main intelligence agency in Canada.
The CSIS handles everything related to Canada’s national security. Duties include collecting intelligence, running covert operations, and advising the government on potential security threats. The CSIS is also Canada’s representative in the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Five Eyes is considered one of the most extensive espionage alliances in history, though it has long been under public scrutiny for its methods.
Based in Ottawa, Ontario, the CSIS collects information from around the world and weeds out anything that might pose a threat to Canada and its citizens. However, the agency has a bit of a reputation for being too aggressive when it comes to running its activities in the name of national security.
7. Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE)
Operating under the French Ministry of Defence, the Directorate-General for External Security is the French equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency. It mainly deals with foreign intelligence and issues, with the Directorate-General for Internal Security handling domestic affairs.
The DGSE conducts all manners of activities and operations relating to national security, which include running human intelligence operations and signals intelligence operations. However, almost all agency operations are kept under wraps and away from the public eye. Not much is known about the agency’s past and ongoing operations.
The DGSE played a significant role during the Rwandan Civil War in the 1990s. The agency had the task of spreading false information, which laid the groundwork for increased French involvement during the late stages of the war. The DGSE also had a role during the Kosovo War between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Liberation Army.
6. Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)
The foreign intelligence agency of India probably has the least conspicuous name out of all intelligence agencies in the world. Outsiders might even think it’s just a non-government organization. But don’t be fooled by the agency name – the Research and Analysis Wing is one of the most capable in the world.
Formed in 1968 to specifically deal with foreign intelligence, the RAW plays an instrumental role in keeping India protected against terrorist attacks and monitoring developments in other countries which could directly affect India. However, the RAW is extremely secretive. Not much is known about its activities and past operations, which is a good thing.
The RAW regularly coordinates with other intelligence agencies and presumably has intelligence officers stationed all over the world. In particular, the agency regularly communicates with other well-known agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad in regard to monitoring Pakistan’s nuclear program.
5. Federal Intelligence Service (BND)
The Bundesnachrichtendienst or the Federal Intelligence Service is the foreign intelligence agency of Germany. It was formed in 1956 and directly reports to the German Chancellery. Being the only overseas intelligence agency in the country, it is responsible for gathering both military and civil intelligence.
The BND is tasked with detecting all possible threats to German interests and national security from overseas. The agency gathers information on terrorism, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, drug and illegal human trafficking, and illegal migration.
The BND is known for mainly utilizing wiretapping and electronic espionage to collect information, a tactic often scrutinized by the public. As with other intelligence agencies, most of the activities and operations of the BND are classified. But it’s probably safe to assume that the agency has eyes and ears on major communication lines, recording conversations with no regard for privacy.
4. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
The Central Intelligence Agency is the foreign intelligence agency of the US. It collects information from overseas, with minimal information collection within the country. It is the most popular and easily recognizable intelligence agency in the world, mainly due to its numerous appearances in Hollywood movies.
The CIA was formed in 1947, making it one of the oldest intelligence agencies on this list. The agency is tasked with monitoring overseas developments that might threaten the US, especially relating to terrorism and nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The agency also handles counterintelligence and cyber warfare.
Apart from gathering information, the CIA also runs covert paramilitary operations. The track record of the CIA is a mixed bag, though, based on publicly known past operations. The agency has been involved in numerous scandals and controversies over the years, the chief reason why it is only ranked fourth on our list of the top 10 best intelligence agencies in the world.
3. Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)
The Foreign Intelligence Service is the civilian foreign intelligence agency of the Russian Federation. It is the successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB and works closely with the Main Intelligence Directorate, the military foreign intelligence agency of Russia.
Unlike the primary security agency of Russia, the Federal Security Service, which mainly deals with internal affairs, the SVR is responsible for gathering intelligence outside the country. The SVR is tasked with running various forms of espionage, including military and economic espionage, and conducting electronic surveillance in foreign countries.
Headquartered in the Yasenevo District of Moscow, the SVR has also been involved in alleged assassinations abroad and internet disinformation. Since Russia is allied with China, it can be presumed that the SVR regularly cooperates with Chinese intelligence agencies.
2. Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)
The Secret Intelligence Service is the foreign intelligence agency of the UK. Commonly known as MI6, it is the second-most popular agency on this list, a distinction it owes to the James Bond movies. Like almost all the other agencies on this list, the MI6 primarily deals with external affairs, leaving internal affairs to the MI5.
The MI6 gathers and analyzes information from overseas. It focuses on information related to terrorism, nuclear weapons, drug trafficking, organized crime, and other activities that could threaten the UK’s interests and national security. It also coordinates with other foreign intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency.
The MI6 was formed more than 100 years ago, making it one of the oldest intelligence agencies in the world. Its track record is far from immaculate, however. In recent years, it has been involved in controversies relating to how it handles its operations. Most infamously, there have been reports that the agency employs torture and extraordinary rendition.
Mossad is the national intelligence agency of Israel, one of the top 10 countries with the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world. It is one of the three branches of the Israeli Intelligence Community – the other two being Shin Bet and Aman, which handles internal security and military intelligence, respectively.
Mossad mainly deals with foreign intelligence, collecting information on overseas developments that might threaten Israeli interests and security. The agency runs covert operations and has its own counter-terrorist unit, the Kidon. Not much is known about the unit other than it is supposedly composed of elite assassins.
Like other foreign intelligence agencies, Mossad cooperates with other similar entities from other countries. It has been reported that Mossad cooperates with Middle Eastern countries, with the common topic being Iran’s nuclear program. Mossad has also cooperated with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Research and Analysis Wing in the past.
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