Mark Stout, SPY Historian
Have you ever thought about the CIA’s seal and what it means? The CIA’s website says:
Here’s how we interpret our seal:
- The American Eagle is the national bird and is a symbol of strength and alertness.
- The radiating spokes of the compass rose depict the convergence of intelligence data from all areas of the world to a central point.
- The shield is the standard symbol of defense and the intelligence we gather for policymakers.
In other words, the CIA claims to defend the country by being alert and gathering intelligence information from all around the world.
How about the KGB’s seal? It looks rather different. There are actually quite a number of small variations on it, but they all look more or less like this:
The ribbon says in Cyrillic, “VChK-KGB,” indicating that the KGB (the Committee for State Security), which only took that name in 1954, saw itself as the continuation of the VChK, the “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” which was formed in 1917.
The dominant symbols, however, are the sword and the shield. Indeed, the KGB liked to refer to itself as the “sword and the shield of the Communist Party.” In other words, the KGB saw itself as an executive agency. In this metaphor, intelligence is a form of national power, directly defending the party and state and directly striking their enemies. This is in sharp contrast to the CIA’s claim that intelligence is not itself a form of power but merely supports the application of power by America’s armed forces, diplomats, and others.
The question of whether intelligence is in itself a form of national power, is a subject that scholars of intelligence argue about. But this is not just an abstract debate among academics. It is also a question about how intelligence practitioners see their work.
Next time you are at the International Spy Museum have a look at some of the agency seals—which come from all over the world—on the walls in our “Covers and Legends” exhibit area. What can you figure out about each agency’s mission and its understanding of the intelligence profession?
Mark Stout is the Historian of the International Spy Museum. He spent more than twenty years working in the national security community, serving in the Defense Department, State Department and CIA and working in a Defense Department think-tank. Professor Stout has degrees in political science, applied mathematics and public policy from Stanford and Harvard Universities and has recently defended his PhD dissertation in history at the University of Leeds. He is the co-author of three books and he has published or forthcoming articles in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Intelligence and National Security, and Studies in Intelligence.