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Posted at 4:47 PM ET, 04/26/2010

CIA chief promises spies 'new cover’ for secret ops

By Jeff Stein

New cloaks for old daggers?

CIA Director Leon Panetta told employees today that the spy agency is going to give undercover operatives more ways to avoid exposure overseas.

“The CIA will enhance its use of more flexible and innovative deployments overseas—including new approaches to cover—paving the way for even better intelligence collection,” Panetta told a gathering of employees in the agency’s auditorium, in remarks also broadcast to agency workers around the world via closed-circuit TV.

It was difficult to discern exactly what Panetta had in mind.

There are two kinds of cover used by the CIA (and the rest of the world’s major spy services) to hide agents overseas -- official and non-official.

The most common, official CIA cover, is provided by the State Department, which permits operatives to carry out diplomatic duties in an American embassy by day and their real jobs by night: trying to get local officials and other foreign nationals to turn coat and secretly work for the CIA.

Other U.S. government agencies provide cover as well. In South Vietnam, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided cover for CIA operatives so widely that the two became almost synonymous.

It’s not an arrangement that pleases legitimate State Department diplomats, who complain that they’re put at risk by the practice.

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In recent decades the agency has often said it was deploying more “NOCs,” or officers under non-official cover. U.S. multinational companies -- banks, oil companies, airlines, construction firms -- are generally happy to help the CIA, on patriotic grounds, with legitimate-looking jobs for its operatives.

Just as often, the CIA creates a company out of whole cloth -- a “proprietary,” in spy lingo -- to carry out secret operations under the cover of conducting legitimate business. So it was with “Air America,” created during the Cold War for CIA operations in Asia.

It's a touchy subject, kept in the lockbox of "sources and methods" that the spy agency seeks to protect at all costs.

Clarification of what Panetta meant Monday was hard to come by at CIA headquarters.

Agency spokesman George Little would say only, “Operational cover is an essential shield for intelligence activities. For that very compelling reason, we do not discuss publicly the specifics of how the Agency employs this vital tool.”

Likewise, a U.S. official who insisted on anonymity would say only that “cover is much more than status" -- the phony job that allows a spy to work undercover overseas -- "although there’s no shortage of options on that score. Technology also enables some very creative means of providing cover."

But two agency operations veterans scoffed at Panetta’s evocation of “new approaches to cover.”

Said a former operative who writes under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones:

"In response to criticism that more than 90 per cent of its officers live and work entirely within the United States, and that the remainder work within American embassies, the CIA periodically promises to get more officers under cover, on the street, in foreign countries."

"Jones" worked under nonofficial cover for several years.

Said another, a counterterroism specialist: “They are just admitting indirectly that, despite all the hype, they still have done next-to-nothing on getting out of embassies.”

Meanwhile, Panetta also said the agency was putting more analysts in the field with operatives.

“This sort of fusion has more than proved its value over the years,” he said, “and has been key to victories in counterterrorism and counterproliferation, among other disciplines.”

Panetta also said the agency was “investing in technology to extend the CIA’s operational and analytic reach and become more efficient,” which would include “human-enabled technical collection and … advanced software tools to help agency officers tackle the huge volume of data they encounter in their work.”

“The third pillar is to achieve a new level of agility in maintaining the agency’s global presence and surging for emergencies,” Panetta said.

“The agency will transform its support platforms around the world and consolidate certain business functions.”

By Jeff Stein  | April 26, 2010; 4:47 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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Clues require acquisition.

Posted by: bs2004 | April 26, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

This Administration looks to provide more cover, the last administration took pride in taking it away for political gain. We're much safer now without Dick & Scooter's treasonist leaks.

Posted by: GarrisonLiberty | April 26, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Better cover? Like prohibiting their employees from donating to political candidates listing their CIA fronts? Or their "covert" agents aren't the one who drive to Headquarters every day to their desk job? Or allow them to pose in Vanity Fair? That would be an improvement.

Posted by: accentmark | April 26, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Lest we forget the host of other USG intelligence/investigative agencies that do the same job effectively without all the CIA glitz, glamour, aura and ego standing in the way. Most "agents" working overseas at embassies still can't keep it a secret amongst their peers and actual "state" employees - god forbid people think they really work for the State Department. Their egos always get in the way...and their spouses always need something to brag about on the cocktail circuit.

Posted by: Lawyer2 | April 26, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

I'll grant that the State Department is something of a palace of idiots, but this is a discussion of how clear the Saran wrap is.

Cover is both a personal issue, as well as an organizational one. There's no end of stupid with either one, and to expect change would be foolish.

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Posted by: jiankango | April 26, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

Agents are extraordinarily easy to identify. You just need a little better gizmos than local police, and that's not saying much.

Posted by: blasmaic | April 26, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

And then when the CIA does succeed in placing an agent under cover, somebody lik Dick Cheney or Scooter Libby comes along and reveals their identity for political purposes.

Posted by: hithere2 | April 26, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Of course, nothing is to stop future Republican sociopaths from sabotaging the lives of these people and the operations they are handling if there is a perceived need for spite or political payback.

And with every day that passes, more and more crimes perpetrated under the Bush Administration are given immunity with the tolling of the statute of limitations. So much for President Obama's concern about the rule of law.

Posted by: edallan | April 27, 2010 2:16 AM | Report abuse

Leon the Lion. Panetta has turned out to be a breath of fresh air in continuity reversing the insanity and cleaning up the mess left by John Deutch.

Posted by: Homunculus | April 27, 2010 2:22 AM | Report abuse

I believe that the CIA is an international criminal organization composed of zealots for fascism. They are the antithesis of democracy and freedom.
I could care less if they are exposed, and resent my tax dollars being spent on them.


Posted by: ann19 | April 27, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Aren't they legally and/or politically hampered in using certain covers? Placing NOCs in NGOs for instance? Without the knowledge of the NGO? Setting up a front company is very expensive and resource intensive and if it grows too big like Air America everyone knows about it.

And of course since you are spies, you really shouldn't have much in the way of morals, but can they create illegal organizations to operate from? You can create numerous covers to spy in France, but what is your cover in Central Asia or China? Not a lot of legitimate business and diplomatic cover marks you as a spy. But smuggling operations, counterfeiting, etc... gives you a reason to associate and move about. It is also gives you a valid business reason to ask if that heroin smuggler is Taliban or normal criminal. And a reason to kill him without arousing suspicion. Not something a construction executive is likely to need to know.

Posted by: caribis | April 27, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Fortunately, most of the people commenting in this spyblog are clueless and self-misdirected when it comes to intelligence collection and cover methods.
Even more fortunate are the NOCs and cover personnel who go about their daily business protecting the USA by gathering information and cultivating assets, and who are never identified and only rarely caught doing their job.
Theirs is a tedious, difficult, thankless, and sometimes dangerous profession.
Fortunately, (there's that word again) they and their work have nothing seriously in common with TV & movie spies.
I wish them well. And those of you who enjoy the freedom to criticize a process about which you are obviously ignorant should get off your ill-informed lazy butts and thank them also.

Posted by: hicacos66 | April 28, 2010 5:43 AM | Report abuse

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars works out of the same building as USAID - The Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, just one block from the White House. Its head is Lee Hamilton, who investigated the Iran-Contra Affair and found that President Reagan didn't know.

Head of the Iran Desk there is Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian exile who taught CIA agents how to speak and read Farsi at Princeton, and who has been funded by RAND and National Endowment for Democracy.

In 2007 she was arrested in Iran for espionage, but was well-treated and released after making a video, which she later said was all true.

Read the full story "Is Haleh Esfandiari a CIA asset?" at including a link to the video.

Posted by: davekimble | April 30, 2010 12:23 AM | Report abuse

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