What's The Difference Between The MI6 And The CIA?

The difference between MI6 and the CIA isn't just that one intelligence agency is based in Britain and one is based in the United States (or that one has James Bond and the other has Jack Ryan).

The British MI6 and American CIA have different origins, subtly distinct purposes — and, most notably, dramatically dissimilar scopes. The MI6 is believed to have fewer than 3,000 employees — the CIA, more than 20,000, writes Victor Mochere. In U.S. dollars, MI6 has a budget of $3.5 billion, while the CIA's budget is more than $14 billion (via The Washington Post). Though MI6 helped train the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era agency that became the CIA, and though the United States was one of the last major powers to create a civilian intelligence agency, it is the CIA that is now one of the most dominant (and controversial) intelligence agencies in the world.

MI6, from the Renaissance to today

MI6 stands for Military Intelligence, Section 6, and is formally known as Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS (via Victor Mochere). The agency can trace its roots back to the first Queen Elizabeth, whose secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, established a legendarily effective secret service — his intelligence work famously led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, according to Britannica.

MI6 was formed as a modern agency in 1912 to collect strategic information in the powder keg of pre-World War I Europe (via Britannica). It is one of three major intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom, along with MI5 — which is analogous to the American FBI — and GCHQ, which monitors electronic communications much like the American NSA, according to the Washington Post.

The agency reports to the foreign secretary — the chief U.K. diplomat — while the CIA reports to the director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level position that is separate from the U.S. equivalent to the foreign secretary, the secretary of state.

The CIA: anti-communism, pro-modern art

The CIA, or Central Intelligence Agency, grew out of the Office of Strategic Services and was officially founded at the end of World War II, in 1947 (via Britannica).

If MI6 is best understood as a response to the Great Wars, the CIA is better thought of as a creation of the Cold War. At the time of its creation, the CIA was primarily thought of as a rival to the KGB, the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union, though unlike that agency, the CIA was officially forbidden from operating on its own country's soil. Much of its activities in the 20th century were focused on limiting the spread of communism — it even funded art, literature, and music that it hoped would promote American culture and capitalism (via BBC).

Today, both the CIA and MI6 appear to largely work together, with some mixed success. Most famously, intelligence from both agencies led to the famous unsubstantiated claims by the U.S. and the U.K. that Iraq under Saddam Hussein housed weapons of mass destruction (via The Guardian).