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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
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The Bush administration's critics in the Wilson affair should be commended for worrying about the possible "blowback" on foreign contacts when operatives like Valerie Plame are exposed. The odds that any of her contacts are suffering, however, are small: Casual, even constant, open association with CIA officers isn't necessarily damning even in countries that look dimly upon unauthorized CIA operational activity within their borders. The CIA is an intelligence arm of the United States, not the Soviet Union. The French, the Indians, the Turks, and the Pakistanis--at times troublesome foreigners with first-rate, often adversarial internal-security services--know the difference.

And if Plame, as has been suggested, was overseas as a non-official cover officer, known in the trade as a NOC, her associations are even less at risk, since foreigners have vastly more plausible deniability with NOCs, who are not as easy to identify as officially covered officers. It is important to note that if Plame was ever a NOC, her associations overseas were jeopardized long ago by the Agency's decision to allow her to come "inside"--that is, become a headquarters-based officer (even one with a poorly "backstopped" business cover like Plame's Boston front company, Brewster-Jennings & Associates).

This officially sanctioned "outing" of NOCs is a longstanding problem in the CIA, where non-official cover officers regularly tire of their "outsider" existence ("inside" officers dominate the Directorate of Operations). It is not uncommon to find former NOCs serving inside CIA stations and bases in geographic regions where they once served non-officially, which of course immediately destroys the cover legend they used as a NOC. Foreign counterintelligence services naturally assume once a spook always a spook. Since foreign counterespionage organizations often share information about the CIA, this outside-inside transformation of NOCs can readily become known beyond one country's borders.

Whether or not Valerie Plame was engaged in serious work inside the Agency's Non-Proliferation Center, one has to ask what in the world her bosses were doing in allowing her husband, a public figure, to accept a non-secret assignment which potentially had a public profile? Journalists regularly learn the names of clandestine-service officers. Senior agency officials may well have thought very little of Ambassador Wilson's "yellowcake" mission to Niger, which explains CIA director George Tenet's statement about his ignorance of it. They may have thought Wilson an ideal candidate for this low-priority, fact-finding mission. But neither is an excuse for employing a spouse of an undercover employee if senior CIA officials thought Plame's clandestine work was valuable. The head of the Non-Proliferation Center ought to be fired for such sloppiness.

ONCE DISABUSED of their romantic notions about undercover work, outsiders shouldn't find it too hard to start asking pertinent questions about the uses and abuses of CIA cover. Prewar intelligence on Iraq has rightly become a contentious issue. It is obvious now that the Operations Directorate failed to collect high-quality human intelligence against the Iraqi regime's weapons of mass destruction programs. According to congressional and CIA sources, however, there has so far been no comprehensive review of CIA intelligence-collection activities against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Congressmen on the intelligence oversight committees ought to begin one.

They should ask Tenet how many clandestine officers have worked the Iraqi target since 1991. He and senior officers of the Operations Directorate should be asked to specify what cover Iraq-targeted case officers had and where they served. They should explain how the cover was supposed to aid American intelligence to penetrate Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and why they think the methodologies adopted didn't work.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a very difficult target for covert human-intelligence collection. Recruiting spies--or, as is almost always the case, running spies who volunteer their services to the CIA--inside a totalitarian state can be enormously frustrating. However, certain operational tactics make much more sense than others. Having a brigade of case officers on an Iraq Task Force at headquarters or fake-diplomat spooks strolling the cocktail circuit in Europe or Asia isn't the most astute use of manpower.