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.

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.

Setting up front companies to feed Saddam's hunger for biological, chemical, and nuclear weaponry is better. Congressmen on the intelligence committees and their staffs should compare the methodology used against Iraq with that now being used against the weapons of mass destruction programs in Iran. Intelligence reports by case officers on Iraq's and Iran's WMD efforts should all be reviewed. Who were the foreign agents behind these reports? Did they volunteer or were they recruited? What was the cover and methodology of the recruiting case officer? Were the reports really any good?

The intelligence committees should be even more rigorous in scrutinizing CIA efforts against al Qaeda. It is obvious that the CIA made no decisive recruitment within al Qaeda before the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 through September 11, 2001. The Counterterrorism Center has grown enormously since 9/11. Has the cover and methodology of CIA officers overseas changed? Are most counterterrorism case officers abroad still using official cover as they were before 9/11?

The intelligence committees should make the clandestine service explain the operational mechanics of its officers overseas. How does the cover used aid the directorate in penetrating al Qaeda and other allied Islamic militant organizations? Or is the Agency really depending upon foreign liaison intelligence services to fight al Qaeda on the ground? If so, how many case officers targeted against Islamic radicalism are declared liaison officers working with a foreign intelligence or internal security services? What exactly is being done by the other non-declared or "unilateral" case officers, who run CIA-only operations. According to active-duty CIA officials, "unilaterals" still represent the vast majority of the CIA's hundreds of counterterrorist case officers.

America's clandestine-service officers would be much more likely to defend us effectively against the threats coming from the Middle East and elsewhere if Congress, the White House, and the press took cover much more seriously. Ambassador Wilson is, at least on this one issue, unquestionably right. It is, as any NOC will tell you, the fundamental building block of any successful operation.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. He is a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service.

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