After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the CIA began a big push to expand its spy program. Specifically, the agency wanted to increase the number of operatives working under what’s called “non-official cover,” meaning they do not work inside an embassy but rather as undercover agents in businesses and universities. The whole effort “was a colossal flop,” a former CIA official tells the Los Angeles Times. After spending at least $3 billion on the program, the Agency has little to show for the effort that increased the number of deep undercover spies from dozens to hundreds. Only a few of the deep undercover officers have actually been successful.
The program suffered from numerous shortcomings, including bureaucratic hurdles. Although the CIA paid a lot of attention to Iran, Tehran was always good at exposing operatives. But mostly the deep-undercover agents suffered from “some of the same shortcomings as other CIA officers—too few spoke Urdu, Pashto, Dari or other necessary languages, or could disappear in local cultures,” notes the Times.