Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

CIA’s ‘Colossal Flop’

Why having officers pose as businessmen overseas is a bad idea.

“Intelligence failure” is the get out of jail free card for the political class. If one can plausibly cite an inability of the intelligence community to provide accurate information in a timely fashion, it is possible to walk away from any disastrous policy with only minimal political damage. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a prime example; the war was driven by the White House and Pentagon in spite of what the intelligence was actually revealing, leading to largely fabricated information being cherry picked and stovepiped through the system. This resulted in the pathetic spectacle of a Secretary of State and Director of Central Intelligence appearing at the United Nations and parroting assessments relating to Iraq that they knew to be untrue. In retrospect, when the situation in Iraq had deteriorated to the point where even Bush administration stalwarts began to have their doubts, it was consequently easy to claim that the intelligence had been bad as a mitigating circumstance, an argument that is still heard to this day.

When the intelligence is ignored then twisted to produce a desired result it is truly a failure but not quite in the way that Bush defenders would like. Since the invasion of Iraq, dubbed the greatest foreign policy failure in the history of the United States, the intelligence community has been more resistant to being a party to fabrication; witness the recent pushback over Syria and the revelations by Seymour Hersh, which, if true, suggest that we the people are imbibing old wine in new bottles when it comes to the veracity of the White House.

But, politicians aside, it must also nevertheless be noted that the overall record of the intelligence agencies has not been above reproach in the decade-plus since 9/11. The recent admission that a former FBI agent was sent to Iran in a rogue CIA operation where he disappeared reveals an organization that is sometimes lacking any clear sense of what it is supposed to be doing. The massive and enormously expensive effort to collect information on terrorists and enemies du jour, including Iran, through traditional spying has not produced commensurate results. It might even be conjectured that the White House is understandably protective of the intelligence abuses by the National Security Agency because illegally tapping into people’s phones and emails has been pretty much the only reliable source of information for policymakers.

CIA, where human intelligence (HUMINT) once predominated, emphasizing recruiting spies and analyzing the information they provided, has largely been transformed into a technology driven death-by-drone machine, in the process sacrificing many of its former capabilities. Current Director John Brennan is reportedly so concerned by the change that he is now engaged in re-emphasizing traditional tradecraft training for Agency new hires before the old skills are completely lost. The killing of seven CIA officers at Camp Chapman near Khost in Afghanistan in 2009, the largest single toll of CIA officers since the Beirut Embassy bombing in 1984, was a wake-up call. The after-action assessment noted that the Chief of Base Jennifer Matthews, a career analyst, may have been at least partly responsible for the security lapses that led to the deaths. She had been given the position because she aggressively lobbied for the field assignment to help advance her career and the Agency, foolishly, ignored the fact that she had not had the appropriate training and was not experienced enough to be in charge in a war zone.

The latest intelligence failure being reported in the media is the Global Deployment Initiative, a multi-billion dollar effort to move CIA officers out of embassies and into the real world that began shortly after 9/11. It was characteristically headed by an officer with only limited overseas experience and is not surprisingly now being described as a “colossal flop” by insiders and outsiders alike. The concept is not exactly new, and the CIA has long been a leader in hiring officers who are placed under business cover and sent overseas. They are referred to as NOCs, an acronym for non-official cover. The argument in favor of NOCs has been that some countries, where the security environment is very difficult, are better penetrated by businessmen than by spies in embassies, who are routinely heavily surveilled whenever they leave the building. Many of the CIA NOCs in the 1970s and 1980s also benefited from being non-American or at least being able to pass as a non-American given the proper false identification, which was a lot easier to do in those days. Some were also already successful businessmen when they were hired, meaning that they brought their cover with them.

NOCs have no diplomatic protection if they are caught, which is why they are normally only used to handle existing agents, not to recruit new sources. They are generally disliked among embassy based operations officers for a number of reasons.  First, they often require an inside or diplomatic cover officer as a regular contact, which is usually regarded as an unrewarding assignment for whoever is stuck with the job of hand holding. Second, many NOCs become obsessed with developing their business cover at the expense of their Agency job, meaning that they are often seen as nearly useless from an intelligence point of view. Third, NOCs require extensive backstopping to support their cover and administrative needs, which is expensive and time consuming both for Washington and in the field.

NOCs also often come in pairs, as tandem couples consisting of a husband and wife or God knows what combination these days as the Agency has fully embraced the Obama gender agenda. Inside officers who deal with a tandem couple often refer to the combination as “one for the price of two” since the couples, isolated in a foreign environment, tend to whine a lot, feed off each other’s professional grievances, and need a great deal of stroking.

Taking into consideration all of the downside, during my nearly 20 years overseas I only knew of three NOCs that most objective observers would have described as effective. The Global Deployment Initiative only made the situation worse, inheriting the problems associated with NOCs historically before going on to add its own wrinkles. By the 1980s, the Agency had pretty much run through its supply of officers who had learned to speak a foreign language with native fluency at home, and increasingly draconian security requirements meant that few Dari, Pashto, or Farsi speakers could get in through the front door. The new breed post-9/11 therefore does not normally have the needed foreign languages, nor do they come equipped with any actual business skills. Senior management’s desire to please the White House by getting as many bodies overseas as quickly as possible has meant that NOCs frequently find themselves in a foreign environment in which they are culturally and linguistically tone deaf, with poor cover, and far from any terrorist target that might actually be of interest.

Having many new NOCs to cover also exceeded the capacity of existing mechanisms and required the creation of large cover companies that provided a home base for numerous officers. The shell companies thus established were often poorly backstopped.  One such company was Brewster-Jennings, which was cited in the 2003 exposure of NOC officer Valerie Plame by the Bush White House. Many of the covers could be exposed by methods as simple as doing Dunne and Bradstreet checks, which frequently showed incorporation at a law office coupled with no actual business activity. Problems with the multiple uses of one cover soon surfaced, with a single security issue involving one officer exposing the entire group to scrutiny by a foreign intelligence service or a terrorist group. Often the covers were so transparent, “business consultant” being much favored, that foreign intelligence services immediately saw through them, requiring the US government to arrange a number of precipitous removals of NOC officers at great expense due to security concerns.

So the new NOC program is deservedly dead, yet another failure of a vast bureaucracy whose constant unimaginative striving suggests that the motto on the CIA seal should be something like “If You Need Something New Don’t Call Us.” In Latin, of course. As a postscript, it might be interesting to note how other intelligence services handle their “outside” officers. The old KGB used to specialize in so-called “illegals” who would be sent to countries with false identities and might lie dormant for a number of years before being activated. The recent Anna Chapman spy case in New York would appear to indicate that the Russians still operate in that fashion. The European intelligence services avoid having officers under business cover and instead tend to focus on hiring their own countrymen as sources after they are established in careers that give them access to needed information, so they manage them more like traditional agents rather than as colleagues. The British have a number of journalists, employees in international organizations, and academics who work as regular, career salaried stringers for MI-6. The French and Italians do the same. Operating that way is not only cheaper, it is more effective as the non-diplomatic colleagues have demonstrated access. The CIA does some of the same but its obsession with fully controlled sources and restrictions on who it can recruit somewhat limits the practice. That means that the ponderous and unworkable NOC program is unique to U.S. intelligence, the latest failure stemming from the Gatsbyesque belief that somehow, someday, someone in Washington will actually get something right before the money runs out.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.