For instance, the CIA has had a few successes despite having a lot of its dirty laundry aired in the press. Just as he was about to depart, then-DCI George Tenet revealed that the CIA had played a huge part in destroying the nuclear proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist A.Q. Khan. A CIA Predator also killed the planner of the October 2000 attack on USS Cole in 2002. In the 1980s, under Bill Casey, the CIA waged what was, for all intents and purposes, an economic war against the Soviet Union. Much of this story remains classified, but some outlines are already emerging.
One cannot discuss the CIA without discussing the Russians and this would include the SVR and its forerunner, the KGB. Unlike the CIA, the KGB and (to a lesser extent) the SVR, have not had to deal with things like politicians leaking to friendly reporters when they got upset about an operation. Russian successes can be described by just naming names: John Walker (who penetrated the U.S. Navy and American encryption secrets), Aldrich Ames (their mole inside the CIA), Robert Hanssen (their mole in the FBI), and Melita Norwood (a British civil servant). These moles delivered a great deal of information. A number of American sources were lost due to Ames and Hanssen, while the Russians used Walkers information to read many secret American documents, and improve the design of Russian submarines.
The British have had a long public perception of an effective intelligence agency (due to the success of the unrealistic, yet entertaining, James Bond movies). This perception matches reality. MI6, the British equivalent to the CIA, has had two big advantages in staying effective: The British Official Secrets Act and D notices can often prevent leaks (which have been the bane of the CIAs existence). Some stories have emerged. In the Cold War, MI6 recruited Oleg Penkovsky, who played a key part in the favorable resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Oleg Gordievski, who operated for a decade before MI6 extracted him via Finland. The British were even aware of Norwoods activities, but made the decision not to tip their hand. MI6 also is rumored to have sabotaged the Tu-144 supersonic airliner program by altering documents and making sure they fell into the hands of the KGB.
The DGSE, Frances intelligence agency, has an even lower profile. Yet it was this agency that was the first to announce the Yom Kipper war in 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and which also carried out a coup against the Central African Republic. A more recent success was the Nicobar network, which not only got technical data on the T-72 main battle tank, but also enabled France to sell Mirage 2000 jets to India.
Finally, there is the Mossad. Israels intelligence agency is most famous for having taken out a number of PLO operatives in retaliation for the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. However, this agency has other success to its name, including the acquisition of a MiG-21 prior to the Six-Day war of 1967 and the theft of the plans for the Mirage 5 after the deal with France went sour. Mossad also assisted the United States in supporting Solidarity in Poland during the 1980s.
Which of these is the best? It is arguably a tie between MI6 and Mossad. Both agencies have had lengthy track records of success. The CIA has not done poorly, but it has been handicapped by a nearly unrestrained press which has often harmed the agency. Harold C. Hutchison (email@example.com)
Figuring out who the best intelligence service is can be difficult. The very nature of intelligence often means that the successes will not be public knowledge for years (for instance, World War II decryption efforts the key to the United States winning the battle of Midway in 1942 were not declassified until the 1970s), whereas failures or controversial operations will be taken to the press. Its a thankless situation. Still, from what little has emerged, one can have an idea of some of the better intelligence services out there, with the understanding that this is based on incomplete data.