Hollywood has produced some incredibly entertaining portrayals of the lives of CIA officers. The veil of secrecy surrounding the work of real-life intelligence officers lends itself to speculation, and the gaps created are quickly filled in with fiction. These fictional depictions often lead to the solidification of the inaccurate perspectives that most people have of the CIA.
In our effort to remain as transparent as possible, we’re debunking 10 of the most common misconceptions people have about the CIA. It may surprise some to discover that we are not the gun-toting, globetrotting, martini-drinking spies frequently portrayed on the silver screen.
Myth 1: The CIA spies on US citizens
The CIA’s mission is to collect information related to foreign intelligence and foreign counterintelligence. By direction of the president in Executive Order 12333 of 1981, and in accordance with procedures approved by the Attorney General, the CIA is restricted in the collection of intelligence information directed against US 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 have been in effect since the 1970s.
The FBI has the lead on intelligence matters in the United States, especially those directed against US citizens. The CIA does not collect information concerning the domestic activities of US citizens, but its foreign intelligence collection mission can be conducted anywhere.
Myth 2: The men and women who work for the CIA are spies and agents
Citizens who work for the CIA are officers — not agents or spies. All employees, from operations officers, to analysts, to librarians and public affairs, are considered CIA officers.
So, who is a CIA agent? Our operations officers recruit well-placed human assets with access to information. These spies are agents. They provide critical information about their country to help America. Operations officers are CIA employees who spot, recruit, and handle foreign agents. They are experts in understanding human nature, emotions, intentions, and motivations.
Foreign agents/spies are invaluable. The information they provide plays a critical role in developing and implementing US foreign and national security policy. Spies risk imprisonment, the loss of their job, reputation, or family and friends. Some are even at risk of execution if caught.
Myth 3: All CIA officers recruit and handle agents
Some people who work for the CIA recruit and handle agents, which is the job of an operations officer. While the number of employees at CIA is classified, we can tell you that the variety of careers here is similar to that of a major corporation. CIA officers work as analysts, scientists, engineers, economists, linguists, mathematicians, secretaries, accountants, computer specialists, targeting officers, inventors, developers, cartographers, cyber exploitation officers, architects, data engineers, IT technicians, human resources, auditors, psychologists, environmental safety officers, nurses, physicians, psychiatrists, cyber security officers, security protective service (federal police) officers, polygraph examiners, attorneys, paralegals, logistics officers, researchers, communications officers, editors, graphic designers, videographers, instructors, automotive mechanics, librarians, historians, museum curators, and more!
Myth 4: All CIA officers are quiet, mysterious, live undercover and lie about where they work
While some officers do live undercover, many do not. And while some of us may be able to confirm that we work for the CIA, we may have to deny you details. Actually, for the majority of our officers, working at the CIA is very similar to working any other nine-to-five job in terms of logistics and lifestyle. The work we do may be secret, but our lives aren’t. CIA officers lead typical lives — we have kids and pets, we workout at the gym, watch movies, eat out, spend time with friends, and do volunteer work. We come from a variety of backgrounds and an array of educational expertise.
We’re ordinary people with extraordinary responsibility, and a drive to use our talents to protect American national security interests.
Myth 5: The CIA has law enforcement authority and all CIA officers carry guns
The public often confuses the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) responsibilities with that of the CIA. The two agencies work closely together, but their roles in keeping America safe are very different. The CIA is not a law enforcement agency. The CIA’s responsibility is to collect intelligence and information overseas. When conducting our mission overseas, we take steps to safeguard any information on Americans that could be incidentally collected. The FBI is the government agency that investigates crimes on American soil and against American citizens abroad. The FBI is also responsible for intelligence matters in the United States, especially those directed against US citizens.
The vast majority of CIA officers do not carry weapons. Aside from officers in the Security Protective Service, or those serving in war zones, most CIA officers will never be issued a gun.
Myth 6: The Agency operates independently and is not held accountable to anyone
The CIA is responsible to the American people. We operate in accordance with oversight from US elected representatives. In the Executive Branch, the National Security Council (NSC)—which includes the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense—provides guidance and direction for national foreign intelligence and counterintelligence activities. In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), as well as other committees, closely monitor the Agency’s reporting and programs.
Internally, the CIA Office of Inspector General performs independent audits, inspections, investigations, and reviews of CIA programs and operations, seeking to detect and deter fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.
The CIA’s budget is scrutinized by the Office of Management and Budget and by SSCI, HPSCI, 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.
Myth 7: Working at CIA will earn you fame and recognition
The men and women who selflessly serve their country through secret intelligence work don’t do it for fame or recognition. They do it out of a deep love and commitment to country. The officers of the CIA are guided by a professional ethos that includes Service — putting our Nation first, Agency before unit, and mission before self and Stewardship — protecting sources and methods from the moment we enter on duty until our last breath. When adhering to these principles there is no room for fame or recognition.
Myth 8: The CIA makes foreign policy
The CIA does not make policy; it is an independent source of foreign intelligence information for those who do. The CIA’s primary mission is to collect, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to the president and senior US government policymakers so they can make informed national security decisions. The CIA works to close intelligence gaps with enhanced collection and analysis on countries, non-state actors, and issues most critical to the president, US policymakers, the US military, and other key members of the Intelligence Community.
Myth 9: All CIA officers are fluent in multiple languages
Speaking a foreign language is not a prerequisite for working at the CIA and not all Agency employees are bilingual. However, the ability to speak, translate, and interpret foreign languages is vital to the mission of the Agency and the CIA does have employees with language skills to handle both current national security requirements and potential new missions. The CIA values foreign language skills and has a comprehensive language incentive program that fosters the acquisition and maintenance of foreign language skills. CIA has one of the most advanced foreign language teaching laboratories in the world, staffed by exceptional linguists and instructors.
Myth 10: CIA officers are the keepers of all government secrets
Working at the CIA does not grant you unlimited access to government secrets. We adhere to a strict “need-to-know” policy regarding classified information. In other words, an officer will not have access to classified information unless it pertains directly to their job duties.