In intelligence and espionage (CIA, MI6, Mossad, BND, DGSE etc.), professionals generally known as “assets” and “agents” are the key players in the field.
The CIA uses many different methods to collect intelligence and conduct operations. One way they do this is by using assets and agents. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, there’s major differences between the two types.
The Perceived Differences of a CIA Agent and CIA Asset:
An intelligence asset is an individual who provides information and services to the CIA but is not officially paid or technically controlled by them. An agent, on the other hand, is someone who officially works for the CIA. They are paid by the CIA and are under their relative control as an employee.
The information assets provide can be anything from classified documents and insider knowledge about another country’s government to performing tasks and assisting in operations for agents.
In return for their information, assets typically receive some form of compensation, such as money or protection from prosecution/enemies.
Although assets are not formally employed by an intelligence agency, they still play a vital role in its operations – despite assets often not knowing they are indeed “assets” for the CIA.
There are many different types of assets, such as embassy staff, foreign government officials, soldiers, business executives, politicians and scientists – anyone in a position of/near power or is/can be useful to the interests of the CIA in one way or another.
Officially called “officers”, is an individual who is formally employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and carries out orders on its behalf.
Agents are usually given specific tasks to complete, such as conducting surveillance, recruiting new assets and any number of operational efforts.
Unlike assets, agents do not receive any form of compensation other than salary for their work – like any other job; instead, they are motivated by a sense of duty and patriotism.
Agents can be categorized into three different general types: case officers, NOCs (non-official cover), and clandestine officers.
Case officers are the most common type of agent. They work under official cover, which means that their affiliation with the CIA are usually known to their target.
NOCs work under non-official cover, which means that their affiliation with the CIA is not known to their target.
Clandestine officers are a combination of both case officers and NOCs; their affiliation with the CIA may or not be known to their target.
The Actual Differences of a CIA Agent and CIA Asset:
Agents and Assets in Practice
In actual practice, officially unofficially, the terms “agents” and “assets” aren’t so clear. An “agent” of the FBI or DEA is a straightforward concept; an FBI agent is just an agent of the FBI and an asset just an asset, aka confidential informant.
With the CIA, “officers” (at least by definition) are more like “agents” in this regard but nothing like a police officer or military officer. A CIA agent could also be technically an asset or vice versa – depending on who recruited who to work against/for whom.
For example, if a CIA “agent” recruits a Russian military official to work for the agency, the CIA “agent” is an “officer” and the Russian official is the “agent”.
The term “asset” in real-world practice, is used with the intent of being vague and can mean anything or nothing without the right context.
It’s used to keep information about those specific personnel depersonalized and confidential.