covert ops' unseen world

Explore today’s world of counter-terrorism and the controversial history of covert operations in America and around the world.

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The "fourth branch":
U.S. intel’s tangled web

American spies during the Cold War were familiar with their enemies and knew where to find them. Today’s adversaries, including organized crime and North Korea's nuclear program, are much more insidious, and require a multiagency response that is not always feasible.

Just as 9/11 set in motion sweeping changes in the U.S. intelligence community, the 21st-century global climate has spawned an even more complex set of threats to U.S. security, putting agencies to the test. And not all agents are happy with how government resources are allocated to address these threats.

Experts say the United States was slow to transition from its decades-long, Cold War-era defense. It didn't react soon enough and effectively enough to thwart a proliferation of "illicit networks" of transnational criminals.

After Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, most of the intelligence community shifted its focus to counterterrorism issues, at the expense of other security threats. “The CIA basically went to a wartime footing. We had hundreds of retirees calling up, asking if they could go back on active duty and if there was any way to help,” said Gene Coyle, a CIA field officer for 30 years and current professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies.

“This was the necessity of the times,” Coyle said, but the downside of this heavy counterterrorism emphasis was that “a number of other important issues, such as growing Chinese industrial espionage, North Korea's nuclear program and the resurgence of Russian espionage, was getting little attention."

This disproportionate focus on counterterrorism over the years has allowed transnational criminal networks to flourish and diversify, and organized crime is alive and well in the United States.

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You now have CIA officers who have moved into middle or even upper management positions, but who have never personally recruited a foreign agent in their lives.

Gene Coyle, a CIA field officer for 30 years and current professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies

“The future trajectory of transnational criminal organizations is disconcerting, as they will seek to penetrate new markets and establish more spheres of influence using corruption and violence,” said Celina Realuyo, professor of practice at the National Defense University.

“Illicit networks that include terrorists, criminals and proliferators are presenting unprecedented asymmetrical threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad,” Realuyo said.

These networks forge alliances with corrupt elements of national governments, using the power and influence of those governments to enhance their criminal activities.

Multinational organizations need significant revenue to operate and will often turn to organized crime to provide that revenue stream. As a result, agencies such as NSA, CIA and the FBI converge tactically to counter transnational terrorism and crime, with support from the White House.

Yet, "a long-term problem of the great shift by the CIA to paramilitary efforts as part of the counterterrorism emphasis was the type of people the agency was hiring—former Special Forces and Navy SEALs, not people with the skills and languages to do classical espionage—the recruiting of foreign diplomats and scientists,” Coyle said.

“You now have CIA officers who have moved into middle or even upper management positions, but who have personally never recruited a foreign agent in their lives."

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) functions as the head of the intelligence community, overseeing 16 spy organizations, including the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency. The ODNI is considered the 17th intelligence agency.

The National Counterterrorism Center, part of the ODNI, fuses data from a range of federal, state and local agencies. Fusion centers were created after 9/11 to enhance collaboration and intelligence gathering among law enforcement agencies. Information sharing that arose since 9/11 is a positive development for law enforcement and intelligence gathering.

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A lot of attention is being paid to the broader dissemination of the intelligence product. That is one of the leading lessons of 9/11.

Benn Prybutok, director of criminal justice studies at Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell, Penn

In the FBI, the most dramatic priority shift was from organized crime to counterterrorism, said Benn Prybutok, director of criminal justice studies at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Penn.

That change caused considerable disquiet inside the FBI because the agency saw its resources being stripped away from ongoing investigations, some of which were quite advanced, he said.

Special agent Robert Chacon, retired FBI, was there when it happened. “We get specifically earmarked funding for certain things,” he said. “When I came into FBI in the mid- to late eighties, everything was about the war on drugs, so the funding all came through for drugs. But that obviously slowly shifted.”

Back then, counterintelligence agents couldn’t get any funding, so they tried to bootstrap onto the drug cases to get money, Chacon said, giving rise to “narcoterrorists.”

“Now that whole paradigm has completely flipped. The money just isn’t there. All the money is coming to the counterterrorism side.”

Indeed, counterterrorism remains the lead priority for the FBI, but it has been able to redirect some of its resources back into organized crime, public corruption and civil rights.

“A lot of resources have gone into that and a lot of attention is being paid to the broader dissemination of the intelligence product,” Prybutok said. “That is one of the leading lessons of 9/11.”

What are U.S. intelligence agencies doing to prepare for a potential alien terror attack? Find out on Syfy’s new original series Hunters.

  • From the Shadows to the Spotlight

    Intel Scandals Revealed

    In what is known as the world’s second-oldest profession, intelligence gathering is fraught with risks of all kinds. The covert nature of this business means that things can, and do, go wrong, often with dire consequences.

    In recent decades, intelligence scandals have shifted from Cold War double crossing to arms sales, electronic surveillance, drone strikes and religious profiling.

  • Intro
  • 1950
  • 1953
  • 1972
  • 1984
  • 1986
  • 2001
  • 2003
  • 2010
  • 2013
  • 2013
  • 2015
  • 2015
  • 2016

Intelligence by the Numbers:

Safety’s High Price Tag

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on national security. It's an investment that brings into question an enormous financial burden, whether that money is keeping us safer and is being directed wisely—at aggressors most threatening to the United States.

For example, $1.6 trillion has been spent on the wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and against ISIS. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security pulled in $668 billion in funding, according to the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Mass.

For 2017 alone, the Obama administration’s budget request for national security is $1 trillion. The question remains whether all of this money keeps us safer, or, if this amount of spending even corresponds to an equal degree of real threat.

Some think the U.S. government could have spent significantly less in certain areas and still had the same level of safety, like Lindsay Koshgarian, research director, National Priorities Project.

Homeland Security Since 9/11
Every hour since 9/11 costs taxpayers

$0.00 million

Total War Cost Since 2001
Every hour since 9/11 costs taxpayers

$0.00 million

The proposed budget increases Pentagon spending by $3 billion over 2016 levels, to $590 billion. But just $7.5 billion—a 50 percent increase over FY 2016—is aimed at fighting ISIS, which the National Priorities Project views as America’s biggest threat.

“We’re sinking billions into the F-35 boondoggle [fifth-generation fighter planes] and it’s not working,” she said. “Even if they were to work, that’s not what you would use to fight ISIS’s pickup trucks.”

The 2017 budget request also includes $20.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons program and $49.7 billion for homeland security spending, including $40.6 billion for the Department of Homeland Security.

Part of the DHS budget funds local covert security operations such as the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC), a small agency within the Maine Department of Public Safety.

The MIAC is a fusion center, one of nearly 80 state and metropolitan covert intelligence agencies across the nation. Fusion centers were created after 9/11 to enhance collaboration and intelligence gathering among state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. In 2014, the Homeland Security Grant Program had $401 million in funds available for fusion centers.

Department of Defense in 2016
Every hour in 2016 costs taxpayers

$0 million

Nuclear Weapons in 2016
Every hour in 2016 costs taxpayers

$0 million

Every year, billions are also allocated to the Black Budget, a secret stash that funds the classified operations of the 17 agencies making up the National Intelligence Program (NIP), including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and National Reconnaissance Office.

The 2017 budget request for the NIP is $53.5 billion; however, the agency does not release its classified budget information. Because there are so many agencies, it’s hard to determine how many people are working on intelligence gathering. It’s likely 2 million to 5 million, said Raymond Kuo, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University in New York.

Collecting intelligence from humans and electronic signals—part of national security efforts—has helped the United States weaken major terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, he said.

“Just taking terrorism, which John Q. Public is concerned about, into account we probably are safer now than we were even six years ago,” Kuo said. “But you also can’t underestimate the effectiveness of kinetic operations, the ability of the United States to target and destroy terror cells around the world.”

Cost of War
in Iraq
Every hour costs taxpayers


Cost of War
in Afghanistan
Every hour costs taxpayers

$0 million

Cost of Military Action
Against ISIS
Every hour costs taxpayers


However, according to the American Action Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank, the defense budget isn’t keeping up with global threats.

Although the Pentagon budget request complies with the bipartisan budget deal reached by the White House and Congress in the fall, national security has worsened since then, the organization said, pointing to ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and U.S. intelligence reports that ISIS will likely attempt direct attacks on America.

The American Action Forum said that U.S. defense spending should be determined based on strategies needed to defeat global threats, not on backroom deals.

Koshgarian, however, said the budget for the Pentagon, which employs some 800,000 civilians, is already too high.

“The Pentagon budget is 10 times higher than the budget for the Department of State,” she said. “But when you look at ISIS, there is also the diplomatic response, not just the military response.”

Foreign policy experts say more resources should be allocated on other fronts, “such as cutting off resources to ISIS and coming to some agreement with the Syrian government, so that it’s not such a friendly environment for ISIS,” Koshgarian said.

Meanwhile, ISIS remains a viable threat in the Middle East, instability persists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States remains on alert to potential homeland terror attacks. Safety, and the success of preventive measures, is indeed difficult to measure.

What are U.S. intelligence agencies doing to prepare for a potential alien terror attack? Find out on Syfy’s new original series Hunters.

Under Their Watchful Eye:

Spy Agencies Around the Globe

One truism in foreign policy is that countries will always spy on other countries. To one-up their enemies, intelligence agencies worldwide rely on substance over flash. They use the latest technology to eavesdrop and gather information to protect national security.

Their job is to keep their citizens and homelands safe, but the methods they choose are not always ethical, or typical.

Here’s a look at some renowned intelligence agencies around the world.

  • North America United States
  • North America Canada
  • South America Argentina
  • South America Paraguay
  • Europe Albania
  • Europe United Kingdom
  • Asia India
  • Asia North Korea
  • Africa Algeria
  • Africa South Africa
  • Middle East Iran
  • Middle East Israel
  • Middle East Jordan
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