From the October 27, 2003 issue: Everything you know about the CIA's clandestine work is wrong.
Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
LIKE MANY FORMER and active-duty case officers of the Central Intelligence Agency, I often find it painful listening to outsiders talk about the clandestine service. Operations are usually rather straightforward, earthy affairs between consenting adults--espionage is seldom a seductive recruitment plan played out in the shadows. But outsiders routinely depict clandestine intelligence collection as a sexy, dark, and dangerous profession. Intelligence officers, too, often can't resist exaggerating the importance, the sleuthful methods, and the risk attached to a normal career in the Directorate of Operations. The common man, the journalist on the intelligence beat, and the spooks at Langley all prefer to see more fiction than fact in the "second oldest profession."
It is important to remember the above chemistry--the mixing of ignorance, curiosity, pride, and self-importance--when thinking about former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his "outed" CIA wife, Valerie Plame. It helps to explain how the commentary about the Wilson affair became so surreal, leading the press, Democratic congressmen and senators, and "professionals" within the intelligence community to suggest that Plame's outing in a leak to columnist Robert Novak had demoralized the intelligence community, quite possibly put Plame and her known foreign contacts into physical jeopardy, and even chilled recruitment efforts by American operatives worldwide. Foreigners, so the theory went, could no longer have confidence in the operational cover protecting their associations with CIA officials after the exposure of Ambassador Wilson's wife.
These hypotheses and conjectures, as it happens, were wildly overstated. There are reasons to be disturbed about what has been revealed in the Wilson-Plame affair, but they are not the reasons we have been told.
Cover is the Achilles' heel of the Operations Directorate. If you have a basic understanding of CIA cover, you can figure out why the over-the-top charges against the Bush administration in the Wilson matter make no sense. More important, you can get some inkling of why the Operations Directorate has done so poorly against many hard, and not-so-hard, targets in the past (for example, Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs). You will also develop a sinking suspicion that the clandestine service has not been running serious, "unilateral" counterterrorist operations against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda since 9/11.
The key fact about CIA cover is that the vast majority of all case officers overseas "operate"--try to spot, develop, recruit, and run foreign agents--with little or none of it. This has been true for decades. The overwhelming majority of all CIA officers abroad--those serving within the clandestine service and those coming from other directorates--serve under "official" cover, usually as fake diplomats. Even the finest "official" cover often doesn't last long--a few months if an officer is lucky--because the bureaucratic differences between CIA officers and their State Department counterparts are significant enough to make "spot-the-spook" relatively easy for opposing counterintelligence services, foreign ministries, and savvy local businessmen and expatriates.
CIA officers also often eschew their cover work because it can be quite time-consuming, offers little professional reward inside the Agency, and is frequently more mentally demanding than "operations" (foreign service officers actually have to think more in their cable-writing, note-taking, and demarching than case officers do in arranging clandestine meetings and regurgitating headquarters debriefing notes). Official cover, even when good, often simply doesn't allow a case officer access to a sufficient number of possible targets (believe it or not, most foreign officials and Islamic holy warriors can't be convinced, seduced, or blackmailed into betraying "their" side). Most chiefs of CIA stations would gladly have their officers demolish their cover if by so doing the operatives could have some chance of meeting a target that could conceivably be recruited. Indeed, depending on the foreign target and sensitivity and prowess of the local counterespionage services, case officers regularly jettison their cover entirely, hoping that gossip and the allure of American power and money will work to their advantage.