Spies might seem like a throwback to earlier days of world wars and cold wars, but they are more prolific than ever— and they are targeting our nation’s most valuable secrets. The threat is not just the more traditional spies passing U.S. secrets to foreign governments, either to fatten their own wallets or to advance their ideological agendas. It is also students and scientists and plenty of others stealing the valuable trade secrets of American universities and businesses—the ingenuity that drives our economy—and providing them to other countries. It is nefarious actors sending controlled technologies overseas that help build bombs and weapons of mass destruction designed to hurt and kill Americans and others. And because much of today’s spying is accomplished by data theft from computer networks, espionage is quickly becoming cyber-based.

Inside FBI Counterintelligence

National Strategy 

As the lead agency for exposing, preventing, and investigating intelligence activities on U.S. soil, the FBI continues to work to combat these threats using our full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities. We’ve mapped out our blueprint in what we call our Counterintelligence National Strategy, which is regularly updated to focus resources on the most serious current and emerging threats.

The strategy itself is classified, but we can tell you what its overall goals are:

  • Keep weapons of mass destruction, advanced conventional weapons, and related technology from falling into the wrong hands—using intelligence to drive our investigative efforts to keep threats from becoming reality. Our new Counterproliferation Center will play a major role here.
  • Protect the secrets of the U.S. intelligence community—again, using intelligence to focus our investigative efforts and collaborating with our government partners to reduce the risk of espionage and insider threats.
  • Protect the nation’s critical assets—like our advanced technologies and sensitive information in the defense, intelligence, economic, financial, public health, and science and technology sectors. We work to identify the source and significance of the threats against these assets, and to help their “owners” to minimize vulnerabilities.
  • Counter the activities of foreign spies—whether they are representatives of foreign intelligence agencies or governments or are acting on their behalf, they all want the same thing: to steal U.S. secrets. Through proactive investigations, we identify who they are and stop what they’re doing.

One important aspect of our counterintelligence strategy involves strategic partnerships. And on that front, we focus on three specific areas:

  • The sharing of expertise and resources of the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, other U.S. government agencies, and global partners to combat foreign intelligence activities;
    Coordination of U.S. intelligence community efforts to combat insider threats among its own ranks; and
  • Partnerships with businesses and colleges and universities to strengthen information sharing and counterintelligence awareness.
  • Focus on cyber activities. Another key element of our counterintelligence strategy is its emphasis on detecting and deterring foreign-sponsored cyber intelligence threats to government and private sector information systems. Sometimes, spies don't have have to physically be in the U.S. to steal targeted information…they can be halfway around the world, sitting at a keyboard.

The FBI’s Counterintelligence National Strategy supports both the President’s National Security Strategy and the National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States.

History and Evolution 

The FBI has been responsible for identifying and neutralizing ongoing national security threats from foreign intelligence efforts since 1917, nine years after the Bureau was created in 1908. The Counterintelligence Division has gone through a lot of changes over the years—including several name changes—and at times took on additional tasks such as terrorism and subversion.

Throughout the Cold War, for example, the division changed its name several times. But foiling and countering the efforts of the Soviet Union and other communist nations remained the primary mission. Read a detailed account of the Venona Project, a 37-year effort to decrypt, decode, and exploit messages sent by Soviet intelligence agencies through the collaboration of the FBI, the National Security Agency, the CIA, and several foreign intelligence agencies.

The following chronology shows how the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division has adjusted and changed over the years to meet evolving threats.

  • Before 1939
    FBI held responsibility for foreign counterintelligence (FCI), terrorism and related investigations. Prior to WWI, many of these responsibilities were shared with the Secret Service. Still, the FBI has held primary responsibility for counterintelligence within America since 1917.
  • 1939
    The General Intelligence Division was created to handle FCI and other intelligence investigations.
  • 1940
    A Special Intelligence Service Division was created to send undercover agents to South and Central America to gather intelligence and to effect counterintelligence operations against Nazi agents and supporters operating there. It was closed in 1946 when President Truman created the Central Intelligence Group.
  • 1941
    The General Intelligence Division was renamed National Defense Division.
  • 1943
    The National Defense Division was renamed the Security Division (not to be confused with the Security Division created in 2001).
  • 1953
    Renamed the Domestic Security Division.
  • 1973
    Renamed the Intelligence Division. (Then, in 1976, Domestic Intelligence/Security investigations, including those involving domestic terrorism, were transferred out, into the Criminal Investigative Division CID.)
  • 1993
    Renamed the National Security Division NSD. (In 1994, the domestic terrorism responsibility moved back to NSD.)
  • 1999
    Counterterrorism Division and Investigative Services Division were created in a Bureauwide reorganization and those responsibilities were transferred out of NSD and CID, into the new division.
  • 2001
    NSD was renamed the Counterintelligence Division. The Security Division, Cyber Division, and Office of Intelligence were created out of the Counterintelligence Division in December 2001

Key Issues/Threats 

Economic Espionage

Economic espionage is a problem that costs the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year and puts our national security at risk. While it is not a new threat, it is a growing one, and the theft attempts by our foreign competitors and adversaries are becoming more brazen and more varied in their approach. The FBI estimates that hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars are lost to foreign competitors every year. These foreign competitors deliberately target economic intelligence in advanced technologies and flourishing U.S. industries.


According to the Economic Espionage Act (EEA), Title 18 U.S.C., Section 1831, economic espionage is (1) whoever knowingly performs targeting or acquisition of trade secrets to (2) knowingly benefit any foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agent. And Theft of Trade Secrets, Title 18 U.S.C., Section 1832, is (1) whoever knowingly misappropriates trade secrets to (2) benefit anyone other than the owner.

Historically, economic espionage has been leveled mainly at defense-related and high-tech industries. But recent FBI cases have shown that no industry, large or small, is immune to the threat. Any company with a proprietary product, process, or idea can be a target; any unprotected trade secret is ripe for the taking by those who wish to illegally obtain innovations to increase their market share at a victim company’s expense.

The FBI's role

Economic espionage falls under the Bureau’s Counterintelligence Program, designated by the FBI Director as the Bureau’s number two investigative priority—second only to terrorism.A Washington Field Office agent helps provide security during the inauguration of President Obama in 2009.

In terms of our operational efforts, the FBI:

  • Conducts an increasing number of investigations into suspected acts of economic espionage using our full arsenal of lawful tools and techniques.
  • Takes part in the DOJ’s Intellectual Property Task Force, which seeks to support prosecutions in priority areas, promote innovation through heightened civil enforcement, achieve greater coordination among federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, and increase focus on international law enforcement efforts, including reinforcing relationships with key foreign partners and U.S. industry leaders.
  • Participates in the multiagency National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which facilitates the exchange of intellectual property theft information, plans and coordinates joint domestic and international law enforcement operations, generates investigative leads from industry and the public, provides law enforcement training, and works closely with industry partners on intellectual property crime.

Beyond its investigative activity, the FBI works to counter the economic espionage threat by raising public awareness and directly reaching out to industry partners. For example:

  • The Bureau’s Economic Espionage Unit is dedicated to countering the economic espionage threat to include developing training and outreach materials; participating in conferences; visiting private industry; working with the law enforcement and intelligence community on requirement issues; and providing classified and unclassified presentations.
  • In collaboration with the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the FBI launched a nationwide campaign and released a short film aimed at educating businesses, industry leaders, and anyone with a trade secret about the threat and how they can help mitigate it. The Company Man: Protecting America’s Secrets, based on an actual case, illustrates how one U.S. company was targeted by foreign actors and how that company worked with the FBI to resolve the problem and bring the perpetrators to justice. The Bureau has provided more than 1,300 in-person briefings on the economic espionage threat to companies and industry leaders over the past year, using The Company Man as a training tool. But through this campaign, the FBI hopes to expand the scope of the audience to include a wider range of industry representatives, trade associations, and smaller companies and encourage them to come forward if they suspect they are a victim of economic espionage.

Counterintelligence Strategic Partnerships 

Our Counterintelligence Strategic Partnerships work to determine and safeguard those technologies which, if compromised, would result in catastrophic losses to national security. Through our relationships with businesses, academia, and U.S. government agencies, the FBI and its counterintelligence community partners are able to identify and effectively protect projects of great importance to the U.S. government. This provides the first line of defense inside facilities where research and development occurs and where intelligence services are focused.

Counterintelligence Brochures