FBI Agent vs. CIA Officer: What’s the Difference?

Updated: July 11, 2021
In this Article

    Many veterans want to continue government service following their time in the military. However, numerous government career options exist, and the differences aren’t always clear. In particular, veterans often ask about the FBI and CIA. As such, we’ll use this article to answer the question – FBI agent vs. CIA officer: what’s the difference?

    Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

    • The Mission of the FBI
    • FBI Agent Overview
    • The Mission of the CIA
    • CIA Officer Overview
    • FBI Agent vs. CIA Officer
    • Final Thoughts

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    The Mission of the FBI

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is a law enforcement agency. As such, it generally exists to investigate crimes. It also plays a large role in counter-intelligence, protecting the United States from foreign intelligence threats. And, following the Sept. 11th attacks, the FBI’s mission has broadened to include counter-terrorism, as well.

    Organizationally, the FBI falls under the US Department of Justice. According to its website, the FBI has a three-part mission:

    • To protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats.
    • To uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States.
    • To provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.

    Despite its primary law enforcement role, the FBI also has an intelligence collection function. Specifically, the organization’s Intelligence Branch serves as a member of the US Intelligence Community.

    FBI Agent Overview

    As an FBI agent, you’ll serve in a law enforcement capacity. In terms of day-to-day work, that could mean focusing on any of the above three mission areas – and countless sub-categories within those areas. Depending on your specific job assignment, you could find yourself doing field work, desk work, or some combination of the two.

    To apply for a job as an FBI agent, you need to be between the ages of 23 and 36. And, the organization encourages applicants from all sorts of backgrounds. According to recent job postings, the FBI is currently seeking agents with the below skill sets:

    • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
    • Foreign language
    • Law
    • Prior military or law enforcement
    • Education/teaching
    • Cybersecurity
    • Medical
    • Psychology/counseling
    • Accounting and finance

    The Mission of the CIA

    Whereas the FBI focuses on law enforcement, the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, exists to collect foreign intelligence for the United States. Accordingly, the Agency is one part of the United States’ Intelligence Community. In that capacity, the CIA’s mission is to preempt threats and further U.S. national security objectives by:

    • Collecting foreign intelligence that matters
    • Producing objective all-source analysis
    • Conducting effective covert action as directed by the president
    • Safeguarding the secrets that help keep our Nation safe

    While not a comprehensive list, some of the CIA’s focus areas include:

    • Nuclear nonproliferation
    • Counterterrorism
    • Counterintelligence
    • Foreign organized crime
    • Drug trafficking
    • Arms control

    It’s important to note: the CIA does not make policy or policy recommendations. Rather, it provides information to the government officials who do. Furthermore, despite not being a law enforcement organization (like the FBI), the CIA works closely with multiple law enforcement agencies on a variety of complex issues.

    CIA Officer Overview

    In general, CIA officers collect information through a variety of sources and methods, evaluate intelligence, and coordinate with other organizations to facilitate intelligence collection outside of the United States. However, what an individual officer does will largely depend on his or her assignment within the Agency. More precisely, the CIA includes the following five Directorates, each of which includes different roles and responsibilities:

    • Directorate of Analysis
    • Directorate of Operations
    • Directorate of Science and Technology
    • Directorate of Digital Innovation
    • Directorate of Support

    Aspiring CIA officers should also recognize that Hollywood doesn’t always reflect reality. In other words, if you join the CIA, you won’t automatically become Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. Most CIA officers work in an analysis capacity – not in deep-cover, clandestine operations. While those job types exist, CIA applicants should understand that these “movie-like” jobs are the exception, not the rule.

    FBI Agent vs. CIA Officer

    Before discussing the differences, it helps to understand some of the general character traits critical to both FBI agents and CIA officers. In both positions, you’ll need strong:

    • Research and analytical skills
    • Problem-solving skills
    • Attention to detail
    • Work ethic
    • Communication skills
    • Interpersonal skills
    • Commitment to service

    Both the FBI and CIA only hire the best applicants. But, if you possess all of the above characteristics, you need to decide which path best suits your personal goals and desires. While a variety of jobs exist in each organization, determining whether you should apply to the FBI or CIA largely comes down to how you answer the following question:

    • Do I want to investigate and help prosecute criminals, or do I want to help the United States collect foreign intelligence?

    If you’re more inclined to law enforcement and want to help put criminals behind bars, serving as an FBI agent makes more sense. On the other hand, if interested in collecting intelligence on foreign threats to the United States, you should consider service as a CIA officer.

    However, applicants also need to understand that this isn’t a binary situation. As we’ve outlined above, the lines between the two organizations often blur. In some circumstances, the FBI focuses on intelligence collection. Similarly, the CIA frequently finds itself helping with law enforcement.

    As such, if still unsure after reading this article, we recommend doing more research. Plenty of veterans work in both organizations, and they can be great sources of information to help you decide. Additionally, the FBI and CIA offer internships tailored to college students. If using your GI Bill following military service, consider applying for one of these internships to help decide whether a job as an FBI agent or CIA officer best suits your unique situation.


    Final Thoughts

    If you’d like to continue serving your country following the military, working as either an FBI agent or CIA officer can be a great option. To determine which path makes the most sense, you’ll need to broadly consider where you’d like to focus your career: law enforcement or intelligence collection.

    About The AuthorMaurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.

    Written by Veteran.com Team