Difference between Counterintelligence Investigation and Criminal Investigation

Key Difference: Counterintelligence investigations work on a national and international level to find spies and prevent espionage against the country. Criminal investigations work on a smaller and national level to solve a particular crime by searching for evidence.

Counter IntelligenceThere are a whole bunch of shows that cover investigations across national and international borders and they can sometimes make things more complicated in an attempt to drum up more drama for viewers. The government works in a series of branches that are responsible for working together to keep the country safe.

While the words FBI, CBI, PDs are often thrown around along with Federal and State agencies, their objectives are often merged together or simply just way too confusing to understand. This is why there is a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding counterintelligence and criminal investigation. While many shows simply blur the lines between the two and one case that might start as a criminal investigation can end as a counterintelligence problem or even a full-blown national threat. This isn’t always the case and counterintelligence and criminal investigations are actually two different tasks performed by two different agencies.

Let’s first take a look at criminal investigation as it is a little simpler to understand. Criminal investigations have a smaller scope that is limited to one particular crime at a time. This investigation is basically looking into solving a crime, from theft to murder to anything that someone might go to their local police department (PD) for falls under this jurisdiction. Once a crime is reported or discovered, the local PDs will either work the case solo or with higher level agencies depending on the scope of the threat. Most cases are often solved by the local PDs and city or state departments.

A criminal investigation starts by searching the crime scene, looks for evidence, find clues to link the victim to the criminal, searches for intent of the crime, tries to apprehend the criminal and finally will present their evidence in court to get the criminal punished. These investigations use a series of tools such as detective work, interviews, forensic science to get evidence, searching for witnesses, etc.

Criminal InvestigationNow, Counterintelligence investigations are mostly large scale and constantly ongoing. It can be performed on national as well as international borders. Counterintelligence investigation cases are some of the highest kept national secrets since they can sometimes border on life and death situations. These don’t require a specific crime but instead it continues to search for threats that can affect the country. In the simplest words, Counterintelligence intelligence are activities that are performed to look for spies or threats to the country from foreign countries. They include maintaining a series of spies within the country.

Counterintelligence investigations include looking for threats to the nation, espionage, assassination threats, as well as protect the nation’s critical assets, like the advanced technologies and sensitive information in the defense, intelligence, economic, financial, public health, and science and technology sectors. They also ensure that the country’s technology and weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. They use networks and agents across the nation and the world to keep the nation safe.

Comparison between Counterintelligence Investigation and Criminal Investigation:


Counterintelligence Investigation

Criminal Investigation


Counterintelligence is a special branch under the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is responsible for finding spies and preventing espionage by other nations

Criminal investigation is performed by local law enforcement such as police departments to find criminals by using investigative techniques

Area covered

International and National



  • Protect the secrets of the Intelligence Community, using intelligence to focus investigative efforts, and collaborating with government partners to reduce the risk of espionage and insider threats.
  • Protect the nation’s critical assets, like advanced technologies and sensitive information in the defense, intelligence, economic, financial, public health, and science and technology sectors.
  • Counter the activities of foreign spies. Through proactive investigations, the Bureau identifies who they are and stops what they’re doing.
  • Keep weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands, and use intelligence to drive the FBI’s investigative efforts to keep threats from becoming reality.
  • Use different investigative methods to understand the identity, intent, and motive of the criminal.
  • Find the identity of the victim and the criminal.
  • Apprehend the criminal.
  • Present the evidence against the criminal in court to ensure the criminal is rightly punished.


The FBI has been responsible for finding and neutralizing national security threats from foreign intelligence services since 1917

Can be dated back to circa 1700 BCE in the writings of the Code of Hammurabi


Security engineers to deter, detect, and neutralize attempts by foreign intelligence services to technically penetrate our office buildings and residences

Searching, interviews, interrogations, evidence collection and preservation and various methods of investigation

Modern Science Techniques

Intelligence operations, cybertracking and espionage

Forensic Science

Performed By

United States Intelligence Community in collaboration with local law enforcement

Government police forces or

Private investigators


Find spies and preventing espionage by working in collaboration with local law enforcement such as local police force, CIA, etc.

Establish which individuals had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime

Reference: Wikipedia (Criminal Investigation, Counterintelligence Division), BCcampus,
Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Free Dictionary, MSNBC, FBI, U.S. Department of State
Image Courtesy: mheducation.com, msnbc.com, globalsecurity.org

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