updated 6/19/2013 12:50:17 PM ET 2013-06-19T16:50:17

What do the CIA, FBI and NSA all have in common? Well, they all use TLAs — three-letter acronyms — to refer to themselves, and they use even more acronyms to refer to everything else.

To some, it might seem like the intelligence and law-enforcement communities are making things overly complex and opaque on purpose. An article about the PRISM Internet surveillance program can leave the reader with more questions than answers.

But that's not necessarily why the government agencies use so many acronyms.

According to computer-security expert Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security in Atlanta, the three-letter acronyms that officials seem to love so much more than the rest of us are simply a "larger set of acronyms, initialisms and buzzwords."

"Think of your own group of friends," Graham said. "There are words and jokes that everyone knows that outsiders don't."

Due to the nature of the intelligence community, he said, the effect is magnified.

"The NSA is a very insular community," Graham said. "There's almost no interaction with the outside world, and little interaction with each other. Groups within the NSA don't talk to each other. There's jargon within groups within the NSA."

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) spokesman Dave Maass agreed. He said it's likely that acronym overuse is just a function of habit and history. [Read also: " Forget the NSA: Your Tech Gadgets Are Spying on You "]

After all, the FBI was created in 1908, and before the CIA was established in 1947, the United States had the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.

"It definitely goes as far back as World War II," Maass said.  "I just don't know if it's acronym crazy, or if we make it acronym crazy, by not referring to everything as their three-word designation."

"Here at EFF, it's like alphabet soup," he added. "Sometimes you do need a decoder ring to figure out exactly what we're talking about."

We don't have a decoder ring, but we do have this handy glossary to help you navigate through all the media coverage that clandestine agencies would surely rather not have.

ATF: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is a federal law-enforcement agency housed in the Department of Justice and is responsible for enforcing federal laws as they relate to the manufacture, possession and use of guns and explosives and illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco.

The ATF also functions as a regulation agency, issuing sales and possession licenses for the devices and drugs they regulate.

CIA: The Central Intelligence Agency is the principal foreign spy agency of the U.S. government. The agency is responsible for gathering intelligence on foreign governments, companies and individuals, analyzing that information and executing clandestine missions at the president's request.

Like many intelligence agencies, the CIA reports to the DNI (see below).

CSS: Through the Central Security Service (CSS), an interservice organization, the NSA partners with Service Cryptologic Elements (SCE) of the armed services to intercept radar and satellite communications between enemies of the state.

Under the CSS, the Special Collections Service (SCS) is an unofficial group charged with placing eavesdropping equipment in hard-to-reach places and recruiting foreigners such as information-technology specialists and system administrators who are in key positions to pass valuable information back to the CSS and ultimately to the NSA and other armed services intel groups like the DIA.

DARPA: As futuristic as the acronym sounds, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is in charge of developing new technologies for military application.

Created in the wake of Sputnik to avoid "technological surprise," the agency's goals have expanded to also create technological surprise for enemies of the United States.

Characterized by a small team, DARPA fancies itself as "100 geniuses connected by a travel agent." The agency only has two management levels to foster the fast and open flow of information and ideas.

Perhaps DARPA's most significant creation was the nationwide ARPANET computer network, the direct predecessor of the global Internet.

DEA: The Drug Enforcement Agency is an internally directed law-enforcement agency specifically geared toward combating drug smuggling and drug use in the United States and enforcing the Controlled Substances Act.

Unlike the FBI, the DEA is also expressly responsible for pursuing drug investigations outside of the United States. The DEA shares concurrent jurisdiction with the FBI inside the United States.

DHS: The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its primary responsibility is to protect the United States inside, outside and at its borders.

Officially, DHS' primary goals are to prepare for, prevent and respond to domestic emergencies — in particular, terrorism, but in practice, it reaches far beyond that.

As it was created, DHS absorbed many formerly autonomous agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, (INS) to create ICE (see below).

DIA: The Defense Intelligence Agency is charged with the production and management of foreign military intelligence in order to provide insight into defense objectives for the president, the secretary of defense and lawmakers at the federal level.

In some ways, the DIA functions as a supplement to the CIA. Its own clandestine service carries out espionage activities in places where the Pentagon has a better foothold and more resources than the CIA.

DNI: The Director of National Intelligence is an individual, currently Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James R. Clapper, who serves in the president’s cabinet.

Established in 2004, the Office of the DNI (ODNI) is responsible for the effective integration of intelligence from foreign, domestic and military sources to defend the United States and its interests at home and abroad.

As head of the IC (see below), the DNI oversees the coordination of several spy and law-enforcement agencies, including the NSA, FBI and CIA.

FBI: Domestically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation serves the Department of Justice as a criminal investigative and domestic spying agency. Originally just the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) when it was created in 1908, the FBI began using its current name in 1935.

Like its externally directed counterparts, the FBI doesn't always work within its outlined functions. The purportedly all-domestic bureau has 50 international offices in U.S. embassies and consulates around the globe.

FISA: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 outlines the procedures for both physical and electronic collection of "foreign intelligence information" between "foreign powers," which could include American citizens suspected of committing acts against the United States.

After Sept. 11, 2001, FISA saw major amendments added to it, such as the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006, which expanded the president's authority to conduct electronically spy on U.S. terror suspects.

The Protect America Act of 2007 weakened restrictions on surveillance to allow the wiretapping of any communications that begin or terminate abroad without approval from the FISA Court.

FISC: The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA Court, was established by FISA to supervise requests for surveillance warrants against foreigners accused of spying on the United States.

The court is mostly used by the NSA and the FBI when those agencies seek special permission to conduct surveillance outside of what the law usually allows. Recipients of FISA court orders, such as Verizon Business Services, are not allowed to disclose the existence of the orders.

IC: The Intelligence Community is a cooperative body that coordinates the efforts of the CIA, DEA, DIA, FBI, NRO, NSA and 10 other smaller intelligence agencies attached to the various branches of the military and government. Its head is the DNI.

ICE: The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is a law-enforcement body under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tasked with enforcing immigration and customs laws.

To some extent, ICE functions as a border security service by investigating threats to the border and enforcing immigration violations, often by detaining and ultimately deporting the offenders.

NGA: The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is the military's imagery and mapping agency. It charts and maps terrain and seabed for military purposes and works closely with the NRO and NSA.

Not well known to civilians, the NGA is considered one of the "big five" intelligence agencies along with the CIA, NSA, DIA and NRO (see below).

NRO: The National Reconnaissance Office develops, produces and operates U.S spy satellites and is the clearinghouse for the analysis of aerial surveillance from the other intelligence and military agencies.

The director of the NRO reports to the DNI and secretary of defense, and customarily serves as the assistant secretary of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency.

NSA: Originally chartered to intercept and analyze foreign communications and intelligence after World War II, the National Security Agency's existence wasn't even officially disclosed until the 1970s. Until then, Washington insiders joked that the initials stood for "No Such Agency."

Unfortunately for such a secretive agency, the NSA made big headlines this month after a leaker revealed that it collected records of domestic telephone calls between millions of Americans who'd never been accused of any wrongdoing. The collected information could potentially be used as evidence in the prosecution of terrorists and enemy combatants.

NSL: Scarier than a subpoena, a National Security Letter is used by government agencies, usually the FBI, to compel organizations to hand over records pertaining to national security investigations.

NSLs can only demand communications metadata — such as phone numbers or email addresses — and not actual content. But like FISA court orders, they also come with gag orders that prevent the recipients from telling anyone, even their own lawyers, that they've received such a letter.

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