CIA chief promises spies 'new cover’ for secret ops
New cloaks for old daggers?
“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.
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.”
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