Real Life Espionage: 10 of the World's Biggest Spy Agencies

Danger, adrenaline rushes, the latest high tech gadgets, beautiful women (or men)... The life of a secret agent seems so glamorous. Thanks to James Bond, we've learned to admire the quiet, mysterious types who can shoot a gun and save the world in no time at all. But the fantasy life of Agent 007 isn't just a glamorous story - there really are secret agents out there walking among us, with high-security clearance and nondisclosure forms allowing them to hold a state's biggest secrets.

There are hundreds of intelligence agencies internationally, with over 17 in just the United States alone, both private and government-funded, employing hundreds of secret agents who work on top-secret missions and projects that hold the future of the world’s economy and welfare in their hands. And if there are so many secret agents, you can bet that there are just as many adversaries out there. All over the world, real-life good guy / villain stories are playing out under our noses, unbeknownst to us.

Of course, working the life of an intelligence agent can be just as mundane as the regular 9-5 job but the stakes are that much higher than your average job. If there are failures in gathering intelligence, the consequences could mean a significant loss of life or even, at worst, the downfall of a country. Being a part of an intelligence agency is a high-stress, high-risk job - is the glamour, or just the promise of it, worth the stress?

Here, we've compiled a list of ten major intelligence or secret agencies that are presently functioning around the world. If you want a career change and fancy stepping into another dimension full of international secrets, terrorist threats, full-blown heists, and more, there are agencies out there who are recruiting new agents every day.

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10 Australian Secret Intelligence Service – Australia

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was started in 1952 and is primarily responsible for collecting intelligence, coordinating with other agencies around the world, and conducting counter-intelligence activities. The Australian government recently passed a bill that allows ASIS to work with other agencies in paramilitary operations, but on the condition that ASIS doesn’t carry anything out. There has been some controversy with ASIS, such as a training operation that got out of control in 1983 at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne, when the group conducted a mock surveillance and hostage rescue of foreign intelligence officers. The exercise got out of hand when the agents used force and distressed hotel guests and staff, and assaulted the hotel manager.

9 Canadian Security Intelligence Service – Canada

Before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was created in 1984, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police handled Canadian intelligence. The intelligence agents who work for CSIS work internationally and domestically to monitor threats to Canadian security and counter any serious concerns. Taking the model of the United States’ CIA and the MI6 of Great Britain, the CSIS is primarily made up of civilians and not connected to the police or the military. One notable example of great work done by this group? From 1988 to 1994, a CSIS agent by the name of Grant Bristow infiltrated the Canadian white-supremacist movement and helped prevent numerous acts of violence by the group.

8 MI6 – United Kingdom

This is the British intelligence agency, so the James Bond reference is particularly pertinent here. It's appropriate, though, because MI6 are as high-powered as an intelligence agency can be. Formerly known as the Secret Intelligence Services, the MI6 was created just before World War I for the purpose of keeping tabs on the activities of the government of (then) Imperial Germany. For the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st century, MI6 has been heavily involved in major conflicts and collaborate heavily with their American counterparts in sharing intelligence and conducting some pretty dangerous covert operations. They have toppled several regimes with the CIA including in Iran in 1953 and the Congo in 1961.

7 Inter Service Intelligence – Pakistan

One of Pakistan’s most active intelligence groups, the ISI was formed in 1948 in an effort to strengthen the sharing of intelligence between military branches, which was significantly weaker during the 1947 Indo-Pakistani War. After 9/11, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) has been working with the CIA for the purposes of counter-terrorism against both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well as Pakistani tribal terrorists. This particular agency is well known for its “invisible” operations, meaning that they're seriously skilled at going undercover. In 1980, the ISI stopped an assassination attempt of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the former President of Pakistan.

6 Research & Analysis Wing – India

The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was created in 1968 as a response to India’s poor intelligence performance in their wars against China and Pakistan. This external agency is actually a wing of the federal cabinet and does not answer to the Indian Parliament. Some of the R&AW’s claims to fame include unearthing links between terrorist groups and Pakistani intelligence during the 1999 Kargil War in Kashmir and infiltrating militant groups that were in the Kashmir valley. The R&AW also had a hand in the creation of the country of Bangladesh by assisting with the discord among the citizens of East Pakistan, which then led to the formation of the Bangladeshi army. These actions led to the defeat of the Pakistani army and infiltrating East Pakistan for covert operations.

5 Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation – Russia

When people think of Russia and secret spy agencies, most people will default to the KGB (which was actually disbanded in 1995). But the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) is the KGB’s chief successor, formed in the same year as the KGB’s termination. Their centre of operations is located in the same place as the former HQ of the KGB in Moscow. The main responsibilities of this group include counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, internal and border security, and surveillance. The FSB is considered to be a military service, but their commissioned officers do not typically wear a uniform.

4 Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure – France

Created in 1982, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) is fairly young compared to the other agencies here, and was formed to replace the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage. The DGSE was given the responsibility of gathering intelligence, detecting and preventing external espionage activities that are directed against France. It all sounds a bit complicated, which is probably why this agency generally keeps a low profile: That low profile helped them discover a Soviet spy network in the early 1980’s that allowed the USSR to gather information about Western agencies. It was the most extensive spy network that was ever uncovered in the United States and Europe.

3 Mossad – Israel

If you have watched NCIS, then you're probably already aware of one of Israel’s most active intelligence agencies. Mossad deals with numerous covert operations including, but not limited to, counter-terrorism and intelligence collection. This Israeli intelligence agency is primarily made up of civilian agents (but many of them have served in the military); there are no military-like rankings. Mossad’s claim to fame was the discovery of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was living in Argentina under the name of Ricardo Klement. Mossad agents captured Eichmann and brought him back to Israel where he faced trial and was executed.

2 Ministry of State Security – China

The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is the main security agency for the People’s Republic of China. The MSS is able to arrest and detain people for crimes just in the same way as police can if their crime involves state security. The agency’s main responsibilities include political security, foreign and counter-intelligence, and protecting the people of China. Their mission is to guarantee the security of China through “effective measures” against spies and enemy agents, and to prevent revolutionary activities that could overthrow the government and country.

1 Central Intelligence Agency – United States

The Central Intelligence Agency, most popularly known as the CIA was founded in 1947 with the mission of finding and analyzing information about foreigners as well as conducting covert operation. During the Cold War, the CIA was given a lot of leeway in their operations so that they could successfully combat the KGB of Russia. Because of this freedom, the CIA made many assassination attempts against foreign leaders. While the Bay of Pigs is perhaps the most renowned event linked to the CIA, Project BLUEBIRD was probably the most disturbing. 1949's BLUEBIRD saw the CIA conducting mind-control experiments, creating false memories, and creating new identities and multiple personalities. Sounds like a bizarre conspiracy theory? These experiments were reportedly carried out by lacing electrodes in people and controlling them with remote transmitters and giving children dosages of LSD-25 for long periods of time and then erasing their memories with electroconvulsive therapy. Scary, right?

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