"Spies," directed by Fritz Lang in 1928; "The 39 Steps," an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1935; and director Michael Curtiz' "Casablanca," released in 1942, explored the life of foreign agents, station chiefs, intelligence operations and national security long before the formal establishment of America's Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. CIA station chiefs assume responsibility for a fixed location and the agents assigned to missions supervised by that station. The station chief also supervises American and military operations within the station territory, typically the boundaries of a foreign country or an international region. CIA agents work in America and also operate from foreign stations, depending on the work assignment.
Station Chief System
The Station Chief System uses a traditional operation organization developed by stagecoach and train companies. The chief oversees all movement into, within and from the station location. CIA chiefs typically supervise the station in a foreign country. All American agents arriving for assignment, including those working for the FBI and the armed forces, check in with the station chief. Some geographic regions don't have formal stations, including North Korea, and station agents in countries such as Russia and China work out of official embassies.
CIA agents work under one of five main agency divisions, including the Directorate of Intelligence, National Clandestine Service, Directorate of Science and Technology, Directorate of Support and the Offices of the Director. Agents assigned to the Directorate of Intelligence analyze intelligence information to help shape policy for senior government policy makers, including the president and cabinet. The Clandestine Service collects information about operations within America's boundaries. Agents operating under the Directorate of Science and Technology carry out policy using technology, including collecting data from the Internet. Support agents work with all three offices to supply necessary information to carry out their tasks. Staff agents assigned to the Offices of the Director handle public affairs, protocol, human resources, congressional affairs, information management and legal issues.
The duties of the station chief vary, but work can include clandestine and directorate assignments focused on science, technology and intelligence collection. Chiefs typically function in secrecy and work hard to remain anonymous in the community. Supervising operatives work inside embassies in countries with totalitarian governments such as Russia and China, for example, and have little freedom for travel to conduct and supervise intelligence operations, according to author Ishmael Jones, a former CIA station chief with over 20 years of foreign service.
Agent duties depend on the mission requirements, training, skills and the formal education of the agent, but work assignments can include any of the missions of the five agency divisions. Not all operatives work in foreign countries, and those who work inside the United States operate under the direction of supervisors other than a station chief. The CIA doesn't have any formal law enforcement function within the country, but it focuses instead on collecting and analyzing information about foreign countries and citizens related to national security.
- The A List: The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films; Jay Carr
- Central Intelligence Agency: History of the CIA
- Forbes: What Do Former CIA Spies Do When They Quit the Spy Game?
- National Review Online: The Corner: Dismantle the CIA's Station-Chief System
- Central Intelligence Agency: Offices of CIA
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Frequently Asked Questions
- CBS News: Report: CIA Station Chief in Islamabad Outed
- Los Angeles Times: CIA Station Chief Refused Order to Kill Congo Leader
Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.