We receive a lot of similar inquiries on a regular basis. Here are our Top 10 most frequently asked questions. Visit the full site for a complete list of our FAQs.
- What does the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) do?
- Who works for the CIA?
- How many people work for the CIA and what is its budget?
- Does the CIA give public tours of its headquarters buildings?
- Does the CIA release publications to the public?
- Does the CIA spy on Americans? Does it keep a file on you?
- Who decides when CIA should participate in covert actions, and why?
- What is the CIA's role in combating international terrorism?
- The CIA has been accused of conducting assassinations and engaging in drug trafficking. What are the facts?
- Who oversees the CIA? Does it act on its own initiative?
1. What does the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) do?
The CIA’s primary mission is to collect, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the president and senior U.S. government policymakers in making decisions relating to national security.
The CIA does not make policy; it is an independent source of foreign intelligence information for those who do.
The CIA may also engage in covert action at the president's direction in accordance with applicable law.
2. Who works for the CIA?
The CIA carefully selects well-qualified people in nearly all fields of study. Scientists, engineers, economists, linguists, mathematicians, secretaries, accountants and computer specialists are a few of the professionals continually in demand.
Much of the Agency’s work requires research, careful evaluation, and writing of reports that end up on the desks of this nation’s policymakers.
Applicants are expected to have a college degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA and must be willing to relocate to the Washington, D.C., area.
Selection for Agency employment is highly competitive. Employees must successfully complete a polygraph, medical examination and a background investigation before entering on duty. The Agency endorses equal employment opportunity for all employees.
For further information, see the CIA Careers page on the full site.
3. How many people work for the CIA and what is its budget?
Neither the number of employees nor the size of the Agency's budget can, at present, be publicly disclosed. A common misconception is that the Agency has an unlimited budget, which is far from true.
While classified, the budget and size of the CIA are known in detail and scrutinized by the Office of Management and Budget and by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Defense Subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees in both houses of Congress. The resources allocated to the CIA are subject to the same rigorous examination and approval process that applies to all other government organizations.
In 1997, the aggregate figure for all U.S. government intelligence and intelligence-related activities—of which the CIA is but one part—was made public for the first time. The aggregate intelligence budget was $26.6 billion in fiscal year 1997 and $26.7 billion for fiscal year 1998. The intelligence budgets for all other years remain classified.
4. Does the CIA give public tours of its headquarters buildings?
No. Logistical problems and security considerations prevent such tours. The CIA provides an extremely limited number of visits annually for approved academic and civic groups. A brief virtual tour is available on the full public website.
5. Does the CIA release publications to the public?
Yes. The CIA releases millions of pages of documents each year. Much of this is material of historical significance or personal interest that has been declassified under Executive Order 12958 (a presidential order outlining a uniform system for handling national security information) or the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act.
The Agency handles thousands of cases each year and maintains the CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room (on the full site) to release this information to the public and to provide guidance for requesting information. Some released information of significant public interest or historical value is also available at the National Archives and Records Administration. Specific copies of any previously declassified records are available directly from the CIA FOIA office.
The Agency frequently releases items of general interest on the full website, including general information about the CIA, unclassified current publications, speeches and congressional testimony, press releases and statements, careers information, and basic references, including the CIA World Factbook.
Many documents, including the CIA World Factbook, report on foreign economic or political matters, maps, and directories of foreign officials are also available in hard copy; these are listed in CIA Maps and Publications Released to the Public which is also posted available from the Office of Public Affairs. Publications on this list may be purchased from the Government Printing Office, the National Technical Information Service, and the Library of Congress. Most CIA publications are classified, however, and are not publicly available.
For more information, contact the CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator at (703) 613-1287 or the Office of Public Affairs at (703) 482-0623.
Its mission is to collect information related to foreign intelligence and foreign counterintelligence. By direction of the president in Executive Order 12333 (view on the full website) of 1981 and in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General, the CIA is restricted in the collection of intelligence information directed against U.S. citizens.
Collection is allowed only for an authorized intelligence purpose; for example, if there is a reason to believe that an individual is involved in espionage or international terrorist activities. The CIA's procedures require senior approval for any such collection that is allowed, and, depending on the collection technique employed, the sanction of the Director of National Intelligence and Attorney General may be required.
These restrictions on the CIA have been in effect since the 1970s.
7. Who decides when CIA should participate in covert actions, and why?
Only the president can direct the CIA to undertake a covert action. Such actions usually are recommended by the National Security Council (NSC). Covert actions are considered when the NSC judges that U.S. foreign policy objectives may not be fully realized by normal diplomatic means and when military action is deemed to be too extreme an option. Therefore, the Agency may be directed to conduct a special activity abroad in support of foreign policy where the role of the U.S. government is neither apparent nor publicly acknowledged. Once tasked, the intelligence oversight committees of the Congress must be notified.
8. What is the CIA's role in combating international terrorism?
The CIA supports the overall U.S. government effort to combat international terrorism by collecting, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence on foreign terrorist groups and individuals. The CIA also works with friendly foreign governments and shares pertinent information with them.
Executive Order 12333 (on the full website) of 1981 explicitly prohibits the CIA from engaging, either directly or indirectly, in assassinations. Internal safeguards and the congressional oversight process assure compliance.
Regarding past allegations of CIA involvement in drug trafficking, the CIA Inspector General* found no evidence to substantiate the charges that the CIA or its employees conspired with or assisted Contra-related organizations or individuals in drug trafficking to raise funds for the Contras or for any other purpose.
In fact, the CIA plays a crucial role in combating drug trafficking by providing intelligence information to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the State Department.
* See Overview of Report of Investigation Concerning Allegations of Connections Between CIA and The Contras in Cocaine Trafficking to the United States located on the Agency's full site.
10. Who oversees the CIA? Does it act on its own initiative?
Both the Congress and the Executive Branch oversee the CIA’s activities. In addition, the CIA is responsible to the American people through their elected representatives, and, like other government agencies, acts in accordance with U.S. laws and executive orders. In the Executive Branch, the National Security Council—including the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense—provides guidance and direction for national foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as other committees, closely monitor the Agency’s reporting and programs. The CIA is not a policy-making organization; it advises the Director of National Intelligence on matters of foreign intelligence, and it conducts covert actions at the direction of the President.