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Posted at 11:19 AM ET, 08/24/2010

‘Covert Affairs’ stretches for spy-world reality

By Jeff Stein

Melvin Gamble, a retired high-level CIA official, got a call last week about the latest episode of “Covert Affairs,” the hot new spy drama on USA Networks.

The caller said he had a close friend who works at the Smithsonian.

Was it true, as the show had it last week, that a CIA operative could use the Smithsonian, which conducts international research under a variety of programs, for cover?

Possibly, said Gamble, who spent four decades in the operations wing of the spy agency, retiring in 2008 as chief of the Africa division. But only if the Smithsonian agreed to the arrangement.

Like any other U.S. government or quasi-government agency (with the exception of the Peace Corps), Gamble said the venerable institution is fair game for use by the spooks.

Not that it’s very likely, he and other onetime spies quickly added. The departments of State and Defense, front-line agencies in the espionage world, are better for that.

To almost every intelligence veteran, unsurprisingly, TV spy dramas are about as close to the real thing as is a war movie to war, maybe even less so.

Some CIA veterans absolutely hate them.

One official, who insisted on being identified only as “an intelligence insider,” scoffed in response to a question about the new spy drama. “There’s a reason — in this case a whole bunch of reasons — why they call it fiction,” the insider said.

But the writers of “Covert Affairs” seem to have made a conscientious effort to portray the tricks of the intelligence trade with greater verisimilitude than the show's recent predecessors, in particular the cartoon-like “24,” in which spy satellites could be summoned at a moment’s notice while everyone except its star, Jack Bauer, quickly cracked under torture.

In “Covert Affairs,” with Piper Perabo outwitting terrorists and other scum with some credible espionage tradecraft each week, the Tuesday night show has quickly gained a cult-like following and won renewal for a second season.

But back to the august Smithsonian, which is not just a collection of museums but a global education and research organization administered by the U.S. government. Its field researchers do work in lots of countries that the CIA is interested in.

“An interesting idea, shows Hollywood's imagination,” said a CIA operations veteran, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

“In theory, I guess the Smithsonian could be used, with its permission, of course,” he added.

“I don't know of any restrictions on using the Smithsonian,” added Arthur Keller, a retired former CIA counterterrorism operative, “but I'm sure it would be difficult to get approval for it. I don't know of anyone who ever used Smithsonian cover.”

Keller added: “I'd have used it without asking if I thought it would be effective.”

In last week’s episode, the CIA decided to deploy Perabo undercover as a Smithsonian art curator as casually as it might make dinner reservations.

In reality, say most agency veterans, the CIA can only use another government agency for cover after extensive negotiations that culminate in a formal Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. Although the State and Defense departments are the CIA’s favorites, other, less obvious agencies with international operations have been used for cover as well.

“The MOU establishes the ground rules, how many people will be covered, etc.,” said another CIA operations veteran who cannot be identified.

Yet another, who ended his long career as a station chief in a major U.S. ally’s capital, said, “I never heard of an incident where we ever considered using [the Smithsonian] as cover, for the same reasons we stay clear of the Peace Corps,” whose value to U.S. foreign policy is too great to risk by entangling it with the CIA. “Also, it is hard to believe the Smithsonian would agree to it.”

Retired former CIA station chief Milt Bearden, a technical adviser on “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Good Shepherd,” a 2006 movie about the CIA’s early days, says using the Smithsonian (or similar institution) for temporary cover “would have been okay in the early days, but not like they're playing it in ‘Covert Affairs.’ "

The show went way off the track last week, Bearden and other spy veterans say, when Perabo’s character, Annie Walker, used Smithsonian cover to get close to a U.S. senator suspected of leaking classified details about CIA drone strikes.

No way, say CIA veterans -- under any cover -- not any more, anyway.

“A congressional leak investigation -- are you crazy?” said Gamble, only half joking. “Legally, the agency cannot conduct such operations and all leaks are turned over to the Justice Department, which then considers whether or not it is worth investigating.”

“CIA would never be involved in developing information on a U.S. Senator,” another retired former station chief declared in an e-mail. “It would be against the law and cause a tidal wave of congressional anger if it ever surfaced.”

“Not since the 1970's -- pre-Frank Church -- has anything even close to this happened,” insisted Bearden, referring to the late Idaho Democrat who conducted sensational Senate hearings in 1975 about CIA assassinations and coup d’etats carried out under White House orders.

"The agency has no business investigating congressional leaks,” said another CIA veteran whose name cannot be used. “Assuming somebody would do it, that would be the FBI. I have never heard anything remotely resembling what you are describing in the plot of this show."

In any event, today’s CIA has too many lawyers looking over its shoulders for an operative to try something like that, granted Peter Earnest, a 36-year CIA veteran who is now executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington.

Only if a foreign intelligence organization were involved, said Earnest, “might there be grounds for agency involvement, possibly by the Office of Security or the Counterintelligence Center. These cases depend to a great degree on the genesis of the case and where the evidence leads.”

"You could go back to the earlier days of the agency,” Earnest added, “and find instances where both offices were involved in cases they might be hesitant to take on today. “

Indeed, another former CIA official remembered an incident from the late 1970s, when then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner investigated the leak of a CIA document to Richard Perle, then a young aide to hawkish Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), that allegedly showed the Soviets cheating on a missile treaty.

During a polygraph examination, a CIA intelligence analyst owned up to the leak.

“Stansfield Turner demanded that Perle’s boss, Henry Jackson, return the report,” the former official said. “Jackson did, but only after either making a copy or obtaining a copy through channels.”

"Do employees speculate on who leaked information? Sure,” said Ilana Greenstein, a former agency operative. But “basically,” she pointed out, “collecting on U.S. persons is off limits unless there's a foreign intelligence nexus.”

Ah, so: There’s “company” business, and show business.

“I quit watching all TV because of shows like '24 Hours' and 'Covert Affairs,' ” said a dyspeptic Charles Gillen, another CIA operations veteran. “You might benefit by doing the same.”

“The truth is usually less exciting,” added Gillen, author of “Saigon Station,” his own spy yarn, “but often a lot stranger than such TV fictions.”

By Jeff Stein  | August 24, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Entertainment, Intelligence, Lawandcourts  | Tags:  Piper Perabo  
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Next: Self-described CIA assassin dies in gun accident


"Gambling? At Rick's? Shocked -- SHOCKED!"

Or perhaps those quoted are right -- the "new" CIA has sworn off potentially counterproductive covers. Perhaps now, Pentagon and Homeland intel do the really dirty work -- like the extra-legal targeting and silent electromagnetic torture, impairment and neutalization of American citizens.

Don't believe it? This veteran journalist knows it's true, and exposes it here:

P.S. -- Compared to well-written, character-heavy procedurals such as "N.C.I.S.," "Covert Affairs" is a cheap cartoon.

Posted by: scrivener50 | August 24, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I will have to watch this program. Of course, the woman shouldn't be referred to as a "spy", but as a case officer or operative. A Spy is a foreigner who the CIA's case officers recruit to give us information and who commit treason against their own country by doing so. Robert at DECLASSIFIED SECRETS-2

Posted by: Robert61 | August 24, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I have low-level clearance to attend seminars at CIA HQ and enjoy walking through areas seen in spy movies. I will have to "try" this new spy series, especially when the producers consult an ex-CIA official for expertise. Vitit the DECLASSIFIED SECRETS-2 site and read article "(A-N) VISITING CIA HQ TO LEARN ABOUT THE OSI" to find out what's it's like to get into the CIA HQ. Robert

Posted by: Robert61 | August 28, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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