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Difference Between CIA and DIA

Difference Between CIA and DIA

We are all used to seeing bold U.S. agents fighting crime and terrorism and protecting the United States from evil threats coming from both within and outside the country. Or, at least, this is what we usually see in the movies. In fact, Hollywood has created a billion-dollar business around the heroic image of security agents saving the world and employing the latest high-tech innovative gadgets and tools to complete their missions.

However, the reality is rather different from what is constantly portrayed in the movies. The four main U.S. security agencies – the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) – are, indeed, highly secretive and well-organized institutions, but their work is much more bureaucratic and filled with uncertainty than we might think.

Furthermore, while all the just mentioned organizations are engaged in the protection of the United States and of the American citizens, each one of them has a specific task and a different focus. At times, they all come together and join forces for a common cause, but the differences among their missions, history and culture remain evident.

The Central Intelligence Agency – CIA

The CIA is often considered the most important and relevant U.S. civilian defense agency. Yet, it is also the most demonized and contested security organization because of several concerning episodes occurred in the recent past.

The Central Intelligence Agency:

  • Conducts foreign covert operations;
  • Collects and analyzes information relevant to national security; and
  • Collects, processes and provides information to the U.S government in order to assist the President and the policymakers in the decision making process (in particular as far as national security is concerned).

However, the role of this intelligence agency has changed considerably since its creation. In fact, the several scandals and major failures emerged in the last few decades have significantly damaged the reputation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Therefore, it is no surprise that the National Intelligence Office has supplanted the CIA in the role of direct provider of confidential information to the top-ranked government officials.

Defense intelligence Agency – DIA

The first page of the DIA website reads “Defense Intelligence Agency: Committed to Excellence in Defense of the Nation”[1]. The DIA:

  • Collects and provides information related to foreign military intelligence, including:
  1. Weapons’ production and distribution;
  2. Troops’ movements;
  3. Military capabilities;
  4. Military strategies;
  5. Battlefield intelligence;
  6. Administrative and diplomatic shifts; and
  7. Relevant political and economic changes.
  • Relates with and assists:
  1. Military officials;
  2. Defense officials;
  3. Combat commanders; and
  4. Top-ranked policymaker.
  • Analyzes technical/IT intelligence information;
  • Provides advice to the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and
  • Provides crucial military information to combatant commands.

To date, the Defense Intelligence Agency is the most important body dealing with military information and defense intelligence information.


Another important difference between the two organizations is the degree of autonomy they have. The level of independence determines their freedom to act without reporting to a parent organization and their ability to “go beyond” their mandate and capabilities when/if deemed necessary.

  1. The DIA is less independent: in fact, this agency operates under the umbrella and the general mandate of the Department of Defense (DOD). Therefore, its operations cannot be outside the mandate and the sphere of interest of the DOD;
  2. The CIA has no parent agency to report to, and it was formally given additional autonomy, including the power of conducting covert operations, with the National Security Act of 1947. Indeed, the level of autonomy of the Central Intelligence Agency has decreased with time and following the recent scandals, but the CIA remains one of the most important U.S. independent sources of intelligence.

When we talk about the independence of civilian and military intelligence agencies, we need to keep in mind that, while a degree of autonomy is necessary, it is also important to ensure that the power of such organizations does not grow exponentially – thus allowing them to operate above the law. To a greater autonomy must correspond a higher degree of accountability.


The differences between the CIA and the DIA can be traced back to the creation and the mandate of the two agencies.

Indeed, the American government has always needed the support of national intelligence activities, but it was only after World War II that President Roosevelt appointed war-hero William Donovan as first Coordinator of Information and, later, as head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). When the OSS was dismantled, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and created the CIA – a much needed centralized intelligence agency.

By signing the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in 2014, President George W. Bush reshaped the structure of the Central Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld allowed the CIA to use the so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” to extract information from alleged terrorists. Such actions have been widely condemned and contested in the past decade[2].

Conversely, the Defense Intelligence Agency was established in 1961 but the system proved costly and ineffective. After considerable re-arrangements, the DIA became effective in 1986, when it began “to produce comprehensive, contextual and timely intelligence support to defence planners and decision makers in order to effectively enhance national security.”[3] Since then, the DIA has been the main military intelligence agency of the United States.

The work

Analyzing the work of the CIA and the DIA is one of the easiest ways to understand the differences between the two agencies.


Almost all CIA operations have been coded and have been conducted in complete secrecy – often hiding unethical and interventionist agendas. Some of the most famous failures and success of the agency are listed below.

  • Operation Mongoose: fearing the spread of the communist ideals, former U.S. President Kennedy ordered to the CIA and the DOD to do all the necessary to depose Fidel Castro. However, all the efforts made by the agency resulted in a huge waste of time and money;
  • DNA Collecting Drive in Pakistan: Osama Bin Laden was found by the CIA agents following a fake vaccination drive in Pakistan. Instead of vaccinating the Pakistani population, the doctors – CIA allies – collected the DNA of thousands of people, and found Bin Laden’s children living in the area;
  • Operation Mockingbird: investigations have revealed that during the 60s and 70s the CIA bribed editors and journalists in order to shape the public opinion and portray a negative and frightening image of the Red Threat, Communism; and
  • PBSUCCESS: in 1954, the CIA backed a coup against the President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, and demonstrated that the U.S. intelligence could successfully interfere in foreign governments.


The Defense Intelligence Agency has been involved in several operations and counter-operations, including:

  • Operation Urgent Fury: in 1983, the DIA provided crucial information to the 6000 American troops who invaded Grenada;
  • Operation Earnest Will: the DIA increased its support in the operations conducted in the Middle-East, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war;
  • Operation Just Cause: the cooperation between the DIA and other operational forces increased during the U.S. involvement in Panama; and
  • Operation Desert Storm: the DIA coordinated the efforts of the international coalitions aimed at expelling Iraq from Kuwait in 1990.

Furthermore, the DIA provided intelligence information on a number of delicate cases, including:

  • North Korea’s nuclear tests;
  • American hostages in Iran;
  • The counter-offensive in Vietnam; and
  • Several terrorist and violent attacks all over the world.


While all U.S. intelligence agencies – the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) – share the common goal of protecting the U.S. and all American citizens from foreign and domestic threats, the differences between the organizations are substantial.

In particular, the CIA and the DIA[6]:

  • Have a different focus: the CIA is a civilian organization dealing with broad/general topics related to national security while the DIA is a military organization focused on military and defense operations;
  • Have a different degree of autonomy: the DIA is part of the National Department of Defense while the CIA enjoys a higher level of independence, can conduct covert operations and has no parent organization to report to;
  • Collect and provide different information: the intelligence collected by the CIA is used to prevent attacks against the U.S. while the intelligence provided by the DIA serves for the preparation and organization of future military operations; and
  • Deal with different stakeholders: while both organizations report to the top-ranked policymakers in the government, the DIA has stronger links with military officials and commanders.

Therefore, even if the two agencies often cooperate, they officially have different tasks and mandates, and have been established to achieve different goals.

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References :

[0][1] Defense Intelligence Agency, available at http://www.dia.mil/

[1][2] History of the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, available at https://www.cia.gov/kids-page/6-12th-grade/operation-history/history-of-the-cia.html

[2][3]History of the DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, available at http://www.dia.gov.ng/more?page=Pages&title=History%20of%20DIA&menu=About%20Us&view=Single&itemType=Pages&itemid=1

[3][4] 10 Dirty Secret CIA Operations, listverse, available at http://listverse.com/2013/05/25/10-dirty-secret-cia-operations/

[4][5] Defense Intelligence Agency – A brief history, available at https://fas.org/irp/dia/dia_history.pdf

[5][6] The Difference Between the Cia and the Dia, infomory.com, available at http://infomory.com/politics/difference-cia-dia/

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