By Kerry Patton – SOFREP
According to a dramatic December 8, 2013 article in the LA Times, the CIA’s anti-terrorism program was such a “colossal flop” that the critical program designed to place spies in positions to learn the most about terrorist networks is being cut.
The program runs outside normal CIA channels as do the agents. They are not the typical embassy employees or others sent abroad with diplomatic immunities to cover them. These people are the ones who lack official status: the “NOCs”, which stands for “non official cover.’ These are the real spies who risk imprisonment, torture and death if they are caught.
The article judges the entire NOC program and, though it reveals many problems that may make some NOCs less effective than they should be, several could have and should have been recognized when the program really took off after 9-11, and have been remedied simply by the passage of time.
For example, it takes at least five years for a person to learn a language such as Arabic or Farsi. It may take ten years or more for a NOC to insinuate himself into a terrorist group and even longer for someone to get access to planned terrorist attacks and figure out how to communicate – in the absence of emails and cell phones – their intelligence material to their CIA handlers. That there hasn’t been a massive success since 9-11 in places such as Iran should be a surprise to no one. And it is not a reason to cut the NOC program.
But one of the biggest problems wasn’t touched upon is the ongoing conflict inside the CIA between those in the field – the operators and handlers – and the bureaucrats who sit comfortably in their offices and risk nothing more than having to drink a latte at the wrong temperature.
The world of covert operators has almost disappeared because good people are driven from that service. More will continue to drop out as they become aware of the travails they face after their service. America’s best and brightest won’t make the personal sacrifices necessary to perform covert intelligence operations when they are afraid of becoming the one sacrificed to bureaucratic games and congressional nonsense after their service.
For many years, the CIA has undergone dramatic cultural shifts within.
Analysts far outnumber operators, as do contractors, academics and think tank “experts.” Where once stood a CIA “tribe” united in service to our nation, the CIA is now more like a cacophony of fiefdoms in constant rivalry.
The CIA’s sole purpose is to gather intelligence. Now, it’s purpose seems to be to feed the fiefdoms enough to keep them all actively in competition with each other. To revive an old concept the NOCs – the spies still out in the cold – are getting the short end of the stick. That is a fact that is now and will continue to damage our nation’s security.
It is not a well-known fact that non-official cover operatives are not always employees of the CIA. Not all NOCs are on the “official” CIA payroll.
These types of NOCs are actual “assets.” They may be referred to as “agents” depending upon the generation the person is from. (The terminology between “agents” and “assets” is really just a matter of semantics.)
Some of these “assets” or “agents” are officially employed by the US government while others are non-official. Beyond payroll aspects, “official” NOCs are identified, categorized, and filed under a unique system that is also traceable in the CIA Index—a database of all CIA human and business assets.
What happens when someone misplaces, accidently destroys, or simply never fills out appropriate documentation for operatives working on behalf of the CIA—serving as an actual NOC? This is the ultimate in plausible deniability.
Plausible deniability is the name of the game when it comes to the spy world. Files, if they are ever created, may leave absolutely zero proof of operational capacity. Of course, the CIA is not the only federal organization having issues with maintaining records.
It is a well-known fact that the Department of Defense has horrible record keeping skills. There are many cases of folks who left the military with an honorable discharge. Sometimes when they receive their Form DD 214, though, half of their career is omitted. More often than not this is caused by human error, but there are times when this is done intentionally—especially for those who work for DOD and are tasked to perform key missions in the clandestine or covert world. Operators for Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), DEVGRU, or CAG are some examples of this.
So how do people maintain their credibility if they have no verification to support their claims? There is only one way for a CIA operative to protect himself from future political lynching. I was told once by a very smart man who supervised me while I served on active duty to, “always maintain a copy of everything you do or receive.” Illegal? Maybe. Improper? Pretty likely. Necessary to survive an attack on your credibility? Absolutely.
Maintaining a copy of everything you do or receive is a lot more difficult than some might imagine—especially for those who toil in the bowels of the covert world.
The clandestine world demands a very secretive and often lonely lifestyle. No one ever knows the truth. This includes an operative’s family. The operator himself may not know the complete truth. The spouse may never know what an operator has done for the government or the secret life he/she has been hiding all for years.
With unprecedented rifts that sometimes occur inside the CIA and the Intelligence Community, how does an operator protect him/herself when attacked by other disgruntled former employees or retirees who want to remain relevant?
Due to current laws, the US Intelligence Community requires total secrecy of its employees even after an employee leaves or retires. Handlers, as they are referred to, are not authorized to be publicly revealed. Methods of payments and paymasters cannot be exposed. Specific forms of identification through the numerical system cannot be revealed. The list goes on and on, and in truth, there is no possible way for many of these assets/agents to counter any form of “stolen valor” accusation when confronted.
Verifying military service and records is easy. Verifying intelligence service is complex and sometimes impossible. We owe it to our assets – agents, NOCs and the rest – to require those who would reveal them, rake them over the coals in newspapers or pillory them in congressional hearings to understand the burdens the intelligence people carry with them throughout their lives.
Kerry Patton is author of several military/spy thrillers which can be found at his Amazon Author Page.