The List: The World’s Top Spy Agencies

With the Cold War long over, the CIA no longer faces any real competition, right? Wrong. The world’s top espionage agencies are as busy as ever. This week, the FP List looks at the countries that best know how to wield a cloak and dagger.


Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)

Country: Russia

Area of expertise: Officially–counterterrorism and protecting Russian commercial interests abroad. Unofficially–consolidating political power back home.

Activities: Russia has a formidable spying tradition that dates back to the czarist-era Cheka. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the once omnipotent KGB was broken up into several smaller organizations with vastly limited powers. Since ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin took power, however, the SVR, or Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedk as it’s known in Russian, has recovered much of its swagger. Russian spying within the United States is now back to Cold War levels, U.S. officials believe. Peter Earnest, the executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, who matched wits with the KGB as a CIA operative for over three decades, shared this assessment. “They are as important today as they ever were, if not more,” he said. “Russia has not eased off at all on its espionage activities.” The SVR is widely suspected to have played a role in the assassination of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last year. Putin has denied this allegation and lauded the SVR as “one of the most professional and effective special services.” In reality, the intelligence services have emerged as one of the most powerful political groups in Putin’s Russia, and ex-KGB agents occupy many of the Kremlin’s key positions. As the Russian saying goes, “There’s no such thing as an ex-Chekist.”


Ministry of State Security

Country: China

Area of expertise: Industrial espionage and data analysis, domestic security

Activities: The MSS is close in structure to the old Soviet KGB and is responsible for both domestic security and foreign espionage. Its overseas activities are believed to be focused aggressively on the United States, particularly its high-tech industries and military technology. Rather than relying on a handful of agents, the MSS views almost anyone has a potential intelligence asset and gathers intelligence on new weapons systems painstakingly over time through personal contacts. “Chinese espionage is different than Western espionage,” says Earnest. “We go after a secret somewhere; they go after numbers. They collect little bits and pieces and put it together.” Sources often don’t even realize they’ve collaborated with a foreign spy mission, and the thousands of Chinese diplomats, students, and business people who travel to the West every year make spies incredibly difficult to detect. Through this method, the Chinese have managed to reverse engineer numerous U.S. weapons systems. China appears to be stepping up its espionage efforts in cyberspace as well. In September 2007, the Pentagon accused China of hacking into U.S. Defense Department databases. The governments of Germany and Britain have made similar accusations.

Research and Analysis Wing

Country: India

Area of expertise: Destabilizing Pakistan

Activities: RAW was founded in 1968 specifically to counter Pakistani support of militant groups within India, but over the years it has grown into one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services, with wide-ranging activities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. It is particularly active in Bangladesh, where it played a key role in that country’s movement for independence from Pakistan. Pakistani authorities often blame RAW for terrorist attacks in their country. Although these accusations tend to lack evidence, RAW does have a history of backing militant groups in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Recent years have not been easy for RAW. In 1996, RAW was implicated in a scandal involving the illegal donation of funds to U.S. congressional campaigns. Stories about infiltration by U.S. and Chinese assets have become public scandals, and the media is now calling for greater transparency and oversight of the notoriously secretive agency.

ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Inter-Services Intelligence

Country: Pakistan

Area of expertise: Destabilizing India

Activities: Sometimes described as a state within a state with virtually no oversight, ISI is best known for the firm control it exercises over Pakistan’s politics and its role in protecting the military from domestic opposition. But the ISI has also been accused of playing both sides in the global war on terror–fighting Islamist extremists domestically while abetting them abroad. Whether spreading anti-Indian propaganda in Kashmir or funding Sikh separatists in Punjab, the ISI has consistently undermined India’s stability for decades. India has accused the ISI of involvement in dozens of terrorist attacks over the years, including the Mumbai bombings of 2006 that killed 187 people. At the same time, the ISI has worked with the U.S. and allies to combat al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan.

ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Country: Britain

Area of expertise: Counterterrorism, James Bond nostalgia

Activities: After a decade of budget cuts during the “peace dividend” years following the Cold War, Her Majesty’s secret service was caught somewhat unprepared for the challenges of the war on terror. On 9/11, only 30 of MI6’s 1,600 agents were working on counterterrorism. Since then, the agency has been on an all-out recruitment blitz that includes previously unheard of measures, such as taking out ads in newspapers and allowing agents to grant interviews. (Among the fun facts revealed: There really is a person called “Q” who designs gadgets, just like in the James Bond films, but “M” is actually called “C.”) MI6 has also taken out ads in online spy-themed computer games such as “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.” This is a far cry from the Cold War era, when undercover recruiters surreptitiously singled out Oxford and Cambridge’s best and brightest for intelligence work. Despite the charm offensive, MI6 has been attacked in the British media for allegedly participating in CIA-organized “rendition” of terrorism suspects to be tortured abroad. Kremlin officials have also accused MI6 of trying to influence Russia’s domestic politics. MI6’s activities may not be as expansive as they once were, but Earnest characterizes this as “a shift in priorities” toward Middle Eastern terrorism, “rather than a decline.”

The Mossad

Country: Israel

Area of expertise: Combating Islamist terrorism, evacuating Jewish refugees

Activities: “We’re all students of the Mossad,” says Earnest. Since it was founded in 1951, “the Institute,” as it translates in English, has acquired a reputation for extraordinary skill and aggressiveness in combating Israel’s enemies. Some of its notable achievements include the abduction of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, the assassination of the planners of the 1972 Munich Olympics killings, and the assassination of a senior Hamas operative with an exploding cellphone in 1996. The Mossad has also been active over the years in efforts to assist Jewish refugees who seek to immigrate to Israel, including the secret airlifting of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in “Operation Moses” in 1984. The Mossad made some moves toward greater transparency and openness in the 1990s, including revealing the name of its director for the first time, but under Ariel Sharon it turned back toward the clandestine operations for which it is best known. Reports indicate that the Mossad may have had either an agent or an informant at the Syrian military installation that Israel bombed in September 2007.