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The world's best intelligence agencies

Last updated on: August 11, 2010 08:07 IST

The world's best intelligence agencies

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Intelligence agencies operate in a shadowy world. The best agencies are the ones which attract no attention to themselves. Smashinglist.com has come up with a list of the top intelligence agencies in the world. The list has some familiar names like the CIA and MI-6, also throws up a surprise in the top slot.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which was setup in 1952, is responsible for collecting foreign intelligence, undertaking counter-intelligence activities and cooperation with other intelligence agencies overseas. For more than twenty years, the ASIS's existence was kept secret even from its own government. Its primary responsibility is gathering intelligence from the Asian and Pacific spheres. The ASIS is rated in 10th place.

Image: The Sydney Opera House
Photographs: Tim Wimborne/ Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: RAW

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Indian spy agency Research and Analysis Wing is rated in 9th place. Formed in 1968 in the aftermath of wars with China and Pakistan, its primary function is the collection of external intelligence, counter-terrorism and covert operations.

In addition, it is responsible for obtaining and analyzing information about foreign governments, corporations, and persons, in order to advise Indian foreign policymakers.

The Intelligence Bureau is India's domestic intelligence agency. RAW is a wing of the Cabinet Secratariat and is therefore exempt from parliamentary scrutiny. 


Image: Indian soldiers are silhouetted against the rising sun at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: DGSE

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The Directorate General for External Security is France's external intelligence agency. Operating under the direction of the French ministry of defence, the agency works alongside the DCRI (the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence) in providing intelligence and national security, notably by performing paramilitary and counterintelligence operations abroad.

The DGSE was officially founded in 1982. Its primary focus is to gather intelligence from foreign sources to assist in military and strategic decisions for the country. The agency employs more than five thousand people. Its headquarters are in Paris.

Image: The Eiffel Tower is illuminated during the traditional Bastille Day fireworks display in Paris
Photographs: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: FSB

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The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation is Russia's main domestic security agency and the successor of the Soviet-era Cheka, NKVD and KGB.

The FSB is involved in counter-intelligence, internal and border security, counter-terrorism, and surveillance. The FSB is responsible for internal security, counterespionage and the fight against organized crime, terrorism, and drug smuggling. 

Its headquarters are on Lubyanka Square in Moscow, the same location as the former headquarters of the KGB. All law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Russia work under the guidance of FSB.


Image: A military helicopter carrying the Russian national flag flies past the Bell Tower of Ivan The Great in the Kremlin
Photographs: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: BND

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The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) is the foreign intelligence agency of the German government, under the control of the Chancellor's Office.

The BND alerts the German government to threats to German interests from abroad. It depends heavily on wiretapping and electronic surveillance of international communications. It collects and evaluates information on a variety of areas such as international terrorism, WMD proliferation and illegal transfer of technology, organized crime, weapons and drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal migration and information warfare.


Image: The Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz square in Berlin
Photographs: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: MSS

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The Ministry of State Security is the security agency of the People's Republic of China. It is the Chinese government's largest and most active foreign intelligence agency, though it is also involved in domestic security matters.

It is headquartered near the Ministry of Public Security of the People's Republic of China in Beijing. The mission of the MSS is to ensure "the security of the state through effective measures against enemy agents, spies and counter-revolutionary activities designed to sabotage or overthrow China's socialist system." 

One of the primary missions of the MSS is undoubtedly to gather foreign intelligence from targets in various countries overseas. Many MSS agents are said to have operated in  Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan and to have integrated themselves into the world's numerous overseas Chinese communities.

At one point, nearly 120 agents who had been operating under non-official cover in the US, Canada, Western and Northern Europe, and Japan as businessmen, bankers, scholars, and journalists were recalled to China, a fact that demonstrates the broad geographical scope of China's network.


Image: A Chinese man has his photograph taken at the Forbidden City in Beijing
Photographs: David Gray/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: CIA

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The CIA is believed to be the largest intelligence agency in the world and is responsible for gathering data from other countries that could impact US policy. It is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government responsible for providing national security intelligence to senior United States policymakers.

The CIA's primary function is to collect information about foreign governments, corporations and individuals and to advise public policymakers. The agency conducts covert operations and paramilitary actions, and exerts foreign political influence through its Special Activities Division.

The CIA is well funded and has technologically, the most advanced intelligence gathering set-up in the world.

Image: An aerial view of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: MI-6

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The British have had a long public perception of an effective intelligence agency MI-6, the British equivalent to the CIA, has had two big advantages in staying effective: The British Official Secrets Act and D notices can often prevent leaks.

Some stories have emerged. In the Cold War, MI-6 recruited Oleg Penkovsky, who played a key part in the favorable resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Oleg Gordievski, who operated for a decade before MI6 extracted him via Finland. 

MI-6 also is rumored to have sabotaged the Tu-144 supersonic airliner program by altering documents and making sure they reached the Russians.

Image: The headquarters of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at Vauxhall Cross on the River Thames in central London
Photographs: Michael Crabtree/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agencies: Mossad

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The Mossad is Israel's external intelligence agency responsible for intelligence collection and covert operations including paramilitary activities.It is part of a troika Israeli intel agencies, along with AMAN (military intelligence) and Shin Bet (internal security), but its director reports directly to the Prime Minister.

It initially began by tracking down Nazi war criminals and exfiltrating them to Israel for trial. Mossad is most famous for having taken out a number of PLO operatives in retaliation for the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. However, this agency has other success to its name, including the acquisition of a MiG-21 prior to the Six-Day war of 1967 and the theft of the plans for the Mirage 5 after the deal with France went sour.

The Mossad is regarded as one the most successful and effective spy agencies in the world. Recently, Mossad courted controversy when 26 alleged agents were captured on the closed circuit television of a Dubai hotel where senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al Mabhouh was found murdered. The UAE police showed paspports from 6 different countries who protested the matter.

Image: Meir Dagan, head of Israel's spy agency Mossad
Photographs: Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters
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The world's best intelligence agency: ISI

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The Inter-Services Intelligence was created as an independent unit in 1948 in order to strengthen the performance of Pakistan's Military Intelligence during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947.

Its success in preventing a full scale invasion of Pakistan by the Soviets is a feat unmatched by any other agency throughout the intelligence world. Even the mighty KGB, the best of its time, failed to counter the ISI and protect Soviet interests in Central Asia. 

The ISI has had no double agents or defectors through out its history, considering that the whole war campaign it carried out was funded by money earned by selling drugs bought from the very people it was bleeding, the Soviets. 

The ISI has protected Pakistan's nuclear weapons since formed and it has foiled Indian attempts to progress through internal destabilization. It is above all laws in Pakistan.

Its personnel have never been caught on camera. Its is believed to have the highest number of agents worldwide, close to 10,000.  Among all the agencies mentioned on this list, the ISI is believed to be the least well funded.

Image: Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Director General of the ISI

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