How deep is CIA cover?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 30 2003 3:38 PM

How Deep Is CIA Cover?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

This week, the Justice Department began to investigate whether White House officials leaked the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame to several journalists this summer. (Plame is married to a Bush administration critic and had been known as an "energy industry analyst" until political commentator Robert Novak divulged her real profession in a July column.) Which CIA employees go undercover, and how secretive must they be?

Only a small percentage of the CIA's employees (perhaps less than 10 percent of the agency's estimated 10,000 to 20,000 workers) are clandestine officers involved in operations—the traditional spy stuff that includes recruiting sources, executing covert missions, and gathering intelligence. The remaining 90 percent are analysts, managers, scientists, and support staff (the Company has room for artists, too, according to the CIA kids' page). Because of their various roles, CIA employees require different levels of protective cover:

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No cover. Upper management, college recruiters, congressional liaisons, Director George Tenet: These men and women are publicly acknowledged CIA employees.

Light cover. Many of the CIA's analysts and scientists fall under this category. Their families and friends might know who they really work for, but publicly, they claim to be employed by some other innocuous government agency or group. One former intelligence officer described this as "the cover you use if your airplane gets hijacked": It's safe enough to use on a quick visit overseas, say to meet with intelligence counterparts in a friendly country, but insufficient cover for spies stationed abroad.

Official cover. Most CIA employees engaged in operations overseas are given official cover: a sham job in the U.S. embassy (or working for another government agency) that affords them diplomatic immunity. These spies work under varying degrees of secrecy—the CIA station chief in a major ally nation may be well-known on the diplomatic cocktail circuit, but his subordinates, who actually recruit new informants, may not be. Such spies probably confide in their immediate families, but otherwise are unlikely to reveal their true occupation. (Although some operatives working in allied nations are "declared" officers, which means the CIA informs the host government that they are spies.) The advantage of official cover is that if officers are caught, they enjoy the benefits of diplomatic protection; at worst, they'd be publicly outed and sent home in disgrace.

Nonofficial cover. NOCs (the word rhymes with "rocks") are the most covert CIA operatives. They typically work abroad without diplomatic protection (often they pretend to work for some commercial enterprise). If these spies are caught, there's no guarantee that the United States would admit their true identities. When using official cover could put a spy's life and work at risk, NOC is the only alternative.

Why is it such a big deal that someone outed Valerie Plame? For starters, it's a felony. And Plame was also reportedly a NOC with years of experience investigating weapons of mass destruction. If this is true, her discovery could compromise intelligence operations she was involved with around the world, which would explain why she maintained her nonofficial cover even when she was back in the United States. "Hard target" countries like China and North Korea often keep records of every known meeting between Americans and their scientists and officials. Almost certainly, those lists would have been frantically reviewed when Plame's identity was revealed, and any sources she recruited could have been exposed.

Explainer thanks Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, and Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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