Counterintelligence approach: Comparison between the United States and the UK

Criminal Justice

Counterintelligence approach: Comparison between the United States and the UK


This paper compares counterintelligence (CI) approaches between the US and UK. At the base of counterintelligence operations, countries harbor different objectives that ultimately drive the approach used for such operations including the setup of the intelligence agencies. Gaitan (2017) shows evidence that some countries have superior counterintelligence operations over others as they capitalize on each other’s differences. In particular, empirical studies by Gaitan (2017) Kalkavage and Hulnick (2014) show that the US and UK have different versions of counterintelligence tracing far back in the histories of both countries. The goal of this paper is thus to unravel these differences in terms of guiding philosophy, policy, legal approach, and organizational perspective.

Philosophical approach

Domestic counterintelligence (CI) in the US has generally been a preserve of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). According to Kalkavage and Hulnick (2014), the founding environment of the FBI was politically inspired and therefore the organization and its CI activities remain largely politically motivated. In reviewing the purpose of FBI, these authors note that a critical point of separation of the agency from other international CI bodies is that it focuses on domestic law enforcement alongside its counterintelligence mission domestically. The local focus, as per Haynes (2003) blurred the effectiveness of the organization in counterintelligence as superiors such as J. Edgar Hoover were more concerned with serving political interests and hiding beneath a network of politicians, journalists, publications, and media outlets that supported the mission.

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Contrastingly, counterintelligence in the UK is done by the MI5 (for domestic focus) and MI6 (for international focus). Both organizations started from an identification of an intelligence and counterintelligence gap during the war between UK and Germany. Kalkavage and Hulnick (2014) however specifically points out that unlike in the FBI, MI5 solely focused on intelligence rather than law enforcement. MI5 was thus formed from a policy standpoint where the UK needed to fight back against intelligence missions of foreign agencies in the UK territory. Subsequently, the organization, also unlike FBI, maintained a low profile as a civilian organisation. Kalkavage and Hulnick (2014) explains the FBI, and CIA, have maintained public profiles and thousands of employees with tendencies to give in to public opinions and fears, while MI5 has always had few employees and top-level secrecy even domestically. The MI5 relies on the police to enforce the law following intelligence gathering.

Policy approach

In the US, Gaitan (2017) notes that FBI has fallen victim to its own foundation with an example of the case-based approach of the agency that has often been viewed as narrow and failing as a counterintelligence tool. Overall, the strategy of the FBI on CI has been to identify foreign spies and arrest them, which has also been cited as part of its law enforcement mandate. In their strategic view, Federal Bureau of Investigation (2011) explain that they focus on protecting secrets of the US intelligence community, keeping weapons of mass destructions and related technology from the wrong hands, protecting critical assets, countering foreign spies, and strategic partnerships with US intelligence agencies, businesses, and learning institutions. These strategic areas of focus reveal that the US is more interested in maintaining an integrated approach of investigative, enforcement, and intelligence work. Further, the FBI notes that it recognizes the new frontier of foreign intelligence missions being done via cyber networks and hence has a strategic focus on keeping the cyberspace safe from foreign espionage activities (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2011).

In the UK, the MI5 has almost similar strategic guides as FBI. It works to protect the UK populace from intelligence operation by foreign agents and this is achieved through protecting assets, protecting institutions, identifying and neutralizing spies, partnering with other government agencies and also the private sector (Mi5. 2020). The difference in strategy lies in the level of secrecy with MI5 being secretive to the extent to allegedly fabricating lies and threatening media’s freedom (Hiley, 2006). Gaspard (2017) also shows how dealing with foreign intelligence – Germany specifically – triggered a spy-fever type of counterintelligence in the UK with focus on using it as a policy tool.

Legal approach

In the US, the Federal Law Title 28, U.S. Code, Sections 533, 3052, 3107, 351 are the main legal grounds for the authority and restrictions of the operations of FBI. These sections give the FBI exclusive permissions on counterintelligence, domestic protection, and law enforcement that are not applicable to any other agencies locally. The authorities include making arrests, carry firearms, issue warrants, carry seizures, and investigating of serial killings, felony killings, and violent crimes across state lines. Title II of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and Executive Order 12333; 50 U.S.C.s 301 and 1801 especially allow the FBI to handle intelligence work in the US. Cumulatively thus, the law gives FBI flexibility to shift between intelligence and enforcement functions at will (Johnson, 2007). 

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UK’s MI5 is bound by the Security Service Act 1989 which gives it the mandate to protect national security against espionage, terrorism, sabotage, and uphold the economic interests of Her Majesty’s government. In 1996 the act was amended to add the role of supporting policing and law enforcement agencies as a mandate of MI5 (Leigh and Lustgarten, 1989). The law similarly ensures that MI5 remains a secretive agency with provisions for imprisonment against individuals advocating for greater freedom of information. Recent amendments of the law have also led to the organization being according to power to allow its agents to break the law in pursuit of national security interests.

Organizational perspective

The FBI is headed by a director who is assisted by a deputy director both reporting to the federal chief of staff. Under the director’s office are seven offices including public affairs, congressional affairs, ombudsman, general counsel, equal employment opportunity, professional responsibility, and integrity and compliance. Under the FBI deputy director are executive assistants for intelligence, national security breach, criminal cyber response and security, science and technology branch, the associate deputy director. The associate deputy director oversees the executive assistants to information and technology, human resources, facilities and logistics, finance, inspection, records management, and resource planning (Nemeth, 2013).

Comparatively, the MI5 is headed by a director general (DG), assisted by two deputy director generals (DDG). One DDG handle intelligence and security advice, while the other handles corporate planning, resources and capability. Under these functions are six branches headed by directors that report to their specific DDG based on their functions. Some of the branches include counterterrorism, counter proliferation, counterespionage, NSAC (protective security), personnel management, technical and surveillance, information and records management (Northcott, 2007). The MI5 is governed by a management board consisting of the DG, DDGs, a legal advisor, and the branch directors.


Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Counterintelligence National Strategy: A Blueprint For Protecting U.S. Secrets | Federal Bureau Of Investigation. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 October 2020].

Gaitan, J. P. (2017). Strategic Counterintelligence: An Approach To Engaging Security Threats To American Security (Doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University).

Gaspard, J. J. (2017). A lesson lived is a lesson learned: a critical re-examination of the origins of preventative counter-espionage in Britain. Journal of Intelligence History, 16(2), 150-171.

Haynes, J. E. (2003). Chasing Spies: How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence but Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years. Journal of Cold War Studies, 5(2), 117-119.

Hiley, N. (2006). Entering the Lists: MI5’s great spy round-up of August 1914. Intelligence and National Security, 21(01), 46-76.

Johnson, T. A. (2007). How the FBI Has Advanced the Effectiveness of Policing and Law Enforcement in America, While Serving as the Nation’s Homeland Security Agency. The Police Journal, 80(3), 217-236.

Kalkavage, M., & Hulnick, A. (2014). Counterintelligence in the Kingdom and the States.

Leigh, I., & Lustgarten, L. (1989). The Security Service Act 1989. The Modern Law Review, 52(6), 801-836.

Mi5. 2020. Counter-Espionage | MI5 – The Security Service. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 October 2020].

Nemeth, C. P. (2013). Homeland security: an introduction to principles and practice. CRC Press.

Northcott, C. (2007). The role, organization, and methods of MI5. International journal of intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 20(3), 453-479.

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