A CIA operative’s fake identity and cover story can be a matter of life and death
Most CIA operatives working overseas are under “official cover,” posing as U.S. government employees- the State Department allows hundreds of its positions in embassies around the world to be occupied by CIA officers representing themselves as diplomats.
There’s an obvious advantage of having official cover- if the CIA case officer is caught spying, he/she has the benefit of diplomatic protection and, at the worst, would be publicly outed and sent home in disgrace.
Some CIA operatives work under non-official cover and are called “NOCs”. They work abroad without diplomatic protection, pretending to work for some commercial enterprise, either for a real company or a fake front entity. Having no official ties to the U.S. government, NOCs rely heavily on their deep cover story, or legend, to avoid getting caught. In the world of espionage, “cover” refers to the amalgam of lies and props, from false names to phony front companies, that disguise a CIA operative’s true identity and purpose.
There are distinct categories of cover that CIA agents use, and an almost endless list of components. Some cover is tissue-thin and disposable. Other arrangements are so layered and deep that they anticipate hostile probing of every facet of a person’s life. The movie ARGO is a fine depiction of “deep” cover.
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be a CIA NOC working in an unfriendly foreign country without diplomatic immunity, having no “safety net”. The threat of being captured looms constantly, for if caught, they are charged as spies committing espionage and receive severe criminal punishments, up to and including execution. That is why they are well trained to deny any connection with their government, thus preserving what’s called “plausible deniability”. Unfortunately, it also denies them any hope of diplomatic legal assistance — or official acknowledgment of their service.
Unfortunately, many of the operatives memorialized without names or dates of service on the CIA Memorial Wall were NOCs who were killed or executed in a foreign country. Most captured NOCs have, thank goodness, been sent back to the U.S. through prisoner exchanges, called “spy swaps”.
A prime example of a CIA NOC being outed is Valerie Plame. Under the President George W. Bush administration, her undercover status was purposefully revealed by political advisor Karl Rove and VP Dick Cheney. After talking with James Marcinkowski, a former CIA case officer who was a fellow classmate of Valerie Plame’s at The Farm, the mysterious CIA training camp, I wrote the article Karl Rove and Dick Cheney made all Americans ‘Fair Game’. Marcinkowski revealed the nature of Plame’s exceedingly deep cover. He told me that Plame’s cover was a vast mosaic of lies and props, like a puzzle that’s nearly impossible for enemy intelligence to put together, with each piece important to protect because, as he put it to me, “You don’t know which pieces the bad guys are missing.” Then, Rove and Cheney, intentionally revealed to the news media that she was an undercover NOC.
In the MISSION OF VENGEANCE spy thriller, one of CIA spymaster Corey Pearson’s counterintelligence team has a most unusual deep cover. Here’s a snippet:
Snippet: “How did team eleven get here so fast?”
“They were right next door, moored off Cap-Haiten, Haiti, a half-day’s sail away. Arrived here in the Dominican Republic an hour ago and docked in the Ocean World Adventure Park marina and rented a Land Rover.”
Agent Sweeney sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, sir, I like my assignment as leader of DR-5, but you’ve got to admit their cover story is the ultimate, one any CIA operative would die for.”
Corey took swig from a bottle of Santo Domingo Catalina beer that filled half the refrigerator. Morrison liked to keep his case officers contented. The slight touch of banana tasted good. “No one would argue with you. They assume the perfect cover, sailing the Caribbean on a fifty-foot yacht while masquerading as spoiled rich kids, scuba diving and partying everywhere they go. Who would imagine they move CIA operational gear, weapons, and undercover agents to wherever needed?”
“And to kill when necessary. I heard about the Penumbra Database recovery they assisted you with at the mansion on Abaco.”
Corey took a large gulp of Catalina while considering the bullet scars in his leg and forearm, knife scar in his upper back and scrap of metal in his knee that resulted from fifteen years of service as a CIA NOC. “Well, Abaco’s another story. At times, there’s experiences we’d like to forget.”
End of Snippet
Lastly, the video US: CIA claims to be losing troubling number of agents reveals the critical importance for CIA operatives to maintain their deep cover fake identities. Last year, the CIA sent a top-secret message to its global network of stations around the world that said a “concerning number of informants recruited from other countries to spy for the U.S. have been captured, killed or compromised”.
Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community in his Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Read his newest spy thriller The Shadow War, episode by episode, as he writes it in the new Kindle Vella program.