World’s Top Intelligence Agencies, Explained

CIA Seal

The 21st century has been very good to the world’s spies. Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, secret intelligence agencies have increased their power and influence in countries as diverse as the United States, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. 

What these spy services have in common is secrecy, techniques, and elaborate emblems to signal their mission. They are a physical reality. They are clandestine bureaucracies, housed in office building and military compounds in all of the major capitals of the world. Their personnel are engaged in

Russia's FSB
  • counterterrorism,
  • covert action,
  • counterproliferation,
  • psychological warfare,
  • paramilitary action,
  • and cyberwar,
  • not to mention, assassination, and drone wars.

In short, intelligence services inform and protect. They also subvert and destroy.

You can’t understand the world we live in until you understand how these secret agencies work. Here’s an introduction to 16 of the world’s most important intelligence services in 2019.

Axis of Trump: Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia Campaign for the President

Benjamin Netanyahu
Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar (Credit: Creative Commons)

After the Israeli government’s decision to bar Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel and Palestine, the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders rallied around the two congresswomen, and the Israeli government did not favor to its supporters in the party.

With a blatant show of support for President Trump’s strategy of racial polarization, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu not only signaled his government’s support for Trump in the 2020 election. He also served to unify an often-fractious Democratic party around a more anti-Israel message that resonates across the party’s left-center spectrum.

Israel’s early intervention in the 2020 campaign is not like the more subtle underhanded approaches that President Putin and his Russian agents used to help the Trump campaign in 2016. Netanyahu’s gambit isn’t the IRA troll factory exposed by Robert Mueller. In Israel’s case, the prime minister is troll factory.

The social media binary tends to divide Democrats into two hostile camps on the question of foreign interference in the 2020 election. Centrists and their cable TV spokesmen, see Russia state interference as the primary threat, while leftists deprecate Russia’s secret and extensive efforts to help Trump and complain that Saudi and Israeli interference is actually much greater.

The partisans of this war do their best to convince each other and the public that the differences in the party are apocalyptic: Rachel Maddow is “Russia conspiracy theorist.” No, Tulsi Gabbard is “a Russian agent.” In reality, there’s less of a contradiction than the rhetoric suggests.

It should now be clear that the Russian, Israeli and Saudi governments are all authoritarian regimes that are seeking to keep authoritarian Trump in power. All of these governments–and their intelligence services–intend to “interfere” in the United States 2020 presidential election, that is to say, they will take secret action in order to secure a second term for Trump.

The Pro-Trump Axis

Bibi Tweets

It is not “anti-semitic” to say that Netanyahu is scheming against American democracy. It is not a “hoax” to say Putin (and operatives like Yevgeny Prigozhin) want to hobble Democrats and help Trump. It is not a “conspiracy theory” to say the Saudis run influence operations in Washington. Rather, there is abundant evidence that the three pro-Trump powers will likely extend covert assistance to the man in the White House.

To be sure, Israeli, Russian, and Saudi interests diverge in some areas. Russia has no interest in the U.S-Saudi-Israeli campaign against Iran. When Trump claimed Iran shot down a U.S. drone in international air space, Russia sided with Tehran. Russia state media promotes Tulsi Gabbard. Israeli and Saudi media demonize her.

Putin Vacation
Russian President in Tuva, August 2018.

But the pro-Trump axis has enough commonalities that Democrat need not bicker about the details. Putin and Steve Bannon, apostle of Trumpism, are making common cause with the populist right in Europe. So is Netanyahu.

Their methods can be lethal. Two GRU officers were dispatched to assassinate turncoat agent Sergey Skripal; Saudi intelligence officers were involved in the liquidation of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. The Israelis assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists.

And they have infrastructure. Just as Israel has a burgeoning spy ware industry fostered by the Israeli intelligence services, so Russia’s GRU has created at least two hacking units to wage cyber war. Both act in their own national interests, against Trump’s opponents in the United States.

(See my piece, “Spooks for Hire: How Mossad Seeds the Private Intelligence Industry.”)

Mohammed bin Salman.

Israel’s banning of the congresswomen, like the indictment of the Russian troll factory, and the whitewashing of Khashoggi’s murder, exposes the intent of foreign powers to thwart American democracy.


Thanks to Netanyahu, it has never been more respectable for Democrats to criticize Israel. From the corporate Obama-Clinton center to the progressive and bleeding-edge socialist left, Israel is now under fire. The disgrace of a president and a prime minister who prevented an American representative from visiting her 90 year old grandmother for the sake of racist political advantage is something that Democrats can agree on.

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, geopolitician.

To be sure, the Israel lobby remains powerful in the party. Many Democrats in Congress are on record with doubts about the legitimacy and the viability of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement. But after Omar and Tlaib’s exclusion, the critical tone about Israel grew notably harsher this week.

The travel ban undermines Democrats who say the Israeli government policy isn’t racist. The only two U.S. representatives forbidden from visiting Israel/Palestine are women of color. How do the 41 Democratic representatives who have travelled to Israel explain that? They suddenly face the question: will they stand up to Israel racism?

Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, the party’s rhetoric is gravitating, once again, toward the formulation of a certain plainspoken Jewish guy from Vermont “Opposing Netanyahu’s policies is not ‘hating the Jewish people,” Bernie Sanders tweeted Thursday.

The Israel-friendly Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand denounced the Israel’s action as “dangerous.” Booker emphasized the danger of Trump’s racist rhetoric. Gillibrand called it “un-American.”

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg: The P Word

Pete Buttigieg used the p-word–Palestine–rarely heard in the party’s pro-Israel discourse in 2016. When Buttigieg went to Gaza in 2018, he repeated the talking points of the Israel lobby and the Israeli security forces. Now he speaks, like Sanders, of reconciling the interests of America, Israel, and Palestine..

The banning of Omar and Tlaib was “appalling,” said Julian Castro. “An affront to American values,” said Kamala Harris. Jay Inslee called it “state-sanctioned Islamophobia.” No one among the Democrats uttered the a-word-=-“apartheid.” But they’re saying American and Israeli values are distinct, which is new.

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris: ‘Affront’ (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the weakest tweets came from Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. They responded to Trump’s claim that Israel would be showing “weakness” by admitting the two congresswomen. The Minnesota Senator and former El Paso congressman countered that Trump is showing “weakness” by (in Gillibrand’s words) “exporting intolerance.” It’s more convoluted than convincing.

Joe Biden, who has a been getting a lot of grief for his gaffes, didn’t distinguish himself with the claim that Israel “shares our democratic values.” The banning of Omar and Tlaib was a very clear statement that the current Israeli government does not share the democratic values of the Democratic party in 2020.

That’s the issue, whether Biden likes it or not, and it’s not cutting Israel’s way. To the contrary, the Democratic party is more anti-Israel than it was a week ago, and the triple threat of Israeli-Russia-Saudi interference in 2020 is clearer than ever.

What is Russia’s GRU?

Main Intelligence Directorate

(From Top World  Intelligence Agencies)

GRU’s stated mission is to supply military intelligence to the Russian president and government. Additional missions include ensuring Russia’s military, economic and technological security.

GRU in the news:

Unlike Russia’s other intelligence services, FSB and SVR, the GRU is not a ministerial organization. The GRU reports to the chief of the general staff and the defense minister.

GRU has allegedly orchestrated the assassination of enemies of the Russian state abroad. British officials says two GRU officers attempted to murder GRU defector Sergei Skripal in the March 2018 with a chemical agent. Russia denies any involvement

The GRU is also known for its cyber operations.  U.S. intelligence sources say the GRU sponsors, or otherwise controls, a hacking collective known as Fancy Bear. According to U.S. intelligence community, Fancy Bear hacked the Democratic National Committee email system during the 2016 presidential election in order to help Donald Trump’s candidacy. “Only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” the U.S. intelligence community concluded. Russia rejects the charge.

GRU chief Igor Koborov died in November 2018.

Return to Top World Intelligence Agencies.

Russian Spy Chief Dies: Hacked the 2016 Election and Bungled an Assassination Plot

Igor Korobov GRU
Igor Korobov GRU
Igor Korobov, late spymaster (Credit: Russia Defense Ministry).

Perhaps it was true, as Russian Defense Ministry said,  that Russian spymaster Igor Korobov  died “after a lengthy and grave illness.” Korobov, 63, had served as chief of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate GRU for since 2016. When last seen in public he displayed the fit figure of a career military man. It would be equally accurate to say that Korobov departed this world after short and error-prone run as Vladimir Putin’s spymaster.

Korobov was healthy enough to visit Washington last January when he and the directors of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) made an unprecedented trip to Washington.

The visit of Korobov and Co. unsettled some U.S. intelligence officials. There’s nothing wrong with intelligence chiefs meeting. Indeed, it is usually a sign of a peaceful relations between two countries. But former intelligence officials questioned rolling out the red carpet for all of Russia’s spymasters at the same time just a year after the CIA, NSA and the Director of National Intelligence had concluded that Koborov and others had conspired to influence the U.S. election. It was a big wink to Putin.

“I can’t recall any time in the last 15 years” that all three Russian agency chiefs were in the U.S. capital at the same time, Steven Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “It’s highly unusual.”

The subject of the meeting was said to be “counterterrorism.”

Before long, Koborov was no longer welcome in Washington and no longer in favor in Moscow.

Sloppy Tradecraft

Two months after Koborov  left Washington,the U.S. Treasury Department added Korobov’s name to a sanctions lists in December 2016 for his “efforts to undermine democracy” by organizing hacker attacks.

That same month,  Korobov’s men botched the assassination of Sergei Skripal, the renegade intelligence officer living in Salisbury England. Two GRU officers put a nerve agent on the door of Skripal’s house. Skripal survived. Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, examined surveillance photographs and released photos of perpetrators.  Social media investigators  and moles inside the Russian bureaucracy did the rest.

in a series of well-documented scoops from The Insider, an independent Russian investigative site, and Bellingcat, the two suspects were exposed as GRU officers, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. Passporte information showed the men’s address was GRU headquarters. 

Alexander Mishkin
Three faces of Alexander Mishkin (Credit: bellingcat/Russia Insider)

In July special prosecutor Robert Mueller  indicted 12 GRU officers for “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”  The indictment showed that U.S. intelligence, probably the NSA, had obtained detailed knowledge of the inner workings of two GRU cyberwar sections, Units 26165 and 74455.

Another botched operation showed the GRU’s tradecraft was careless. In October Dutch intelligence revealed they disrupted a GRU squad attempting to hack the headquarters of the Organization for the the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague. Apparently, the men tried and failed to steal information about the OPCW investigation into the Skripal attack.

Putin was not pleased by the Skripal affair. Perhaps, coincidentally, Korobov’s time was not long on this earth. From reliable independent Russian news site Meduza,

“Korobov reportedly started feeling unwell after a severe reprimand from President Putin in mid-September, following the exposure of an bungled GRU operation to assassinate Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England.

The spymaster’s epitaph: “He never recovered from a severe reprimand.”