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
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.
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.
The General Intelligence Division was created to handle FCI and other intelligence investigations.
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.
The General Intelligence Division was renamed National Defense Division.
The National Defense Division was renamed the Security Division (not to be confused with the Security Division created in 2001).
Renamed the Domestic Security Division.
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.)
Renamed the National Security Division NSD. (In 1994, the domestic terrorism responsibility moved back to NSD.)
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.
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
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.
The presence and influence of foreign governments, poor manufacturing and/or development practices, counterfeit products, tampering, theft, malicious…