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Ask Molly: IC Flags

June 14, 2024

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Dear Molly,

CIA has a rather famous official seal, but I wondered if CIA had its own flag? What about the other IC agencies? If so, can you enlighten me about their history? Thank you.

~ Vexillologist 

 * * * * *

Dear Vexillologist,

As I’m sure you know, today is Flag Day in the U.S.—a day to honor the Stars and Stripes. Although your question isn’t specifically about our nation’s flag, I did think it was a good opportunity to answer it and share the history and protocol of the flags of America’s Intelligence Community (IC).

Yes, CIA does have its own flag! You’ve probably seen it peeking out behind our director and deputy director in their official photos. It’s a dark blue flag with the official CIA seal, in color, on it. For those not familiar with our seal, it features several symbols: an eagle for alertness, a shield for defense, and a compass rose for global intelligence collection. Here’s a cool video we created that takes you behind the history of the seal and its meaning:

Warning: This video below may contain flickering or flashing scenes.

I asked our historians about the background of IC flags, and they provided a bunch of interesting information. (Who knew there was a very specific flag protocol when IC agencies get together?!) According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) protocol, the flags of the U.S. Military services are grouped together on one end, followed by U.S. Federal Government cabinet departments and sub-cabinet-level entities. Within these groupings, they go in the order of their founding dates or when they joined the Intelligence Community.

As with most things, there are sometimes exceptions to these rules. And figuring out the order isn’t as simple as it might at first seem. It all comes down to history. (Doesn’t everything?)

Military flags begin with the Army and proceed through the Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force—the latest element welcomed into the IC, in 2021, more than 70 years after the Air Force’s 1947 creation. According to our historians, a debate persists over who came first among the 1700s-era services, but the above order of precedence is in keeping with a longstanding Department of Defense (DoD) directive. The Coast Guard immediately follows. Surprisingly, the Coast Guard is not a part of DoD, at least in peacetime. Technically, it’s both a federal law enforcement agency and a military branch—the only military branch within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—but it can serve under the Navy in a time of war or at the direction of the president.

The first two cabinet departments are State and Treasury; both were founded in 1789, the former a couple of months ahead of the latter. Energy comes next, arriving on the scene in 1977. The final member of this group is the newest cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security; it officially came into being in 2002 and opened for business in 2003.

The third tranche with sub-cabinet entities includes four DoD components, two in the Department of Justice, and one independent agency: CIA. (Some of these are the famous 3-letter organizations that most people associate with the Intelligence Community). The FBI is the first among this group, as it was officially created in 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation. It changed its name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. 

CIA comes next, officially dating to 1947. Next up is the National Security Agency (NSA), born in 1952. The National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) followed suit in 1961—September and October, respectively. The National Geospatial Agency (NGA) is the last of the military elements, adopting its current name in 2003 after having stood up in 1996 as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. 

Bringing up the rear is the only agency to have twice joined the IC: the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Recognized as part of the IC in 1978, it was removed four years later because of the belief that its primary law enforcement mission did not warrant inclusion. By 2006, however, thinking had swung in the other direction, and DEA once again became an IC member.

Rounding out all of these entities is the ODNI itself, making a grand total of 18 IC members. 

This gets a bit in the weeds, but our historians note that if ODNI’s flag placement was in keeping with the order-of-establishment protocol, the ODNI would presumably be in the second-to-last position. Created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act signed into law in December 2004, and operational as of April 2005, the ODNI would naturally come between NGA and DEA.

However, as the IC leader—and the one in charge of determining how to display the flags—the ODNI has adopted a different tactic for its own location. These days, it typically places its flag after the cabinet departments and before the other sub-cabinet agencies. Such an ordering has a certain logic to it, according to our historians, because this reflects the DNI’s straddling of two worlds; the Director of National Intelligence is a member of the President’s cabinet (like the other department heads), but the agency itself, like CIA, is an independent agency and not a department. (And to make matters more confusing, like the DNI, the Director of CIA is also a member of President Biden’s cabinet. But back to flags, that doesn’t change CIA’s flag placement.)

It’s interesting to note that back in the pre-Space Force days, when the IC was made up of 17 agencies, the ODNI flag was usually found residing in the middle of the entire collection, eight flags to either side, sandwiched between DHS and Energy. It was a symbolic demonstration of centrality. Now, with an even number of organizations and elements in the IC, it is no longer possible for ODNI to place itself in the literal center.

Well, that might be more information on IC flags than you were expecting! I do like that there’s a bit of logic and symbolism to it though. Do you have a favorite IC flag? You don’t have to be an intelligence analyst to guess mine.

Happy Flag Day!

~ Molly

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