There is much confusion as to what to call a Central Intelligence Agency “spy.” Contrary to widespread belief or what we see in Hollywood spy thriller movies, those who work for the CIA’s National Clandestine Service are never referred to as “secret agents”, “spies”, “agents” or “special agents”. They are formally known as Operations Officers or Case Officers.
Years ago, at an Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) seminar, former CIA operative Peter Earnest said he preferred to be called a “CIA Operative”. He is the Founding Executive Director (Emeritus) of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and had a 36-year CIA career, including over 20 years in the Agency’s Clandestine Service. A member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, he was awarded the Agency’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for “superior performance” throughout his career. Ever since then, I refer to CIA “Case Officers” as “Operations Officers,” although both terms are correct to use.
So, what is a spy? When an Operations Officer travels overseas and recruits a person to give him/her secret information that the foreign government does not want the U.S. to know about, that person is a spy. You got that, Hollywood? Jason Bourne, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Matt Damon, Robert Redford, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Jason Statham, and Gene Hackman were all CIA Case Officers (or Operations Officers) … not spies.
CIA Operatives, like Peter Earnest, often operate clandestinely, and they do a lot of spying (maybe I should use the term “surveillance”) and recruiting of spies. It they are NOCs, those who use “Non-Official Cover”, they do not have diplomatic immunity and are subject to detention, arrest and even harsh punishment if captured by an unfriendly nation. Therefore, CIA Operatives go through extensive training to become skilled at combining what the agency calls “people and street smarts” to not only cultivate sources but also avoid capture.
When they travel to foreign countries, they are not permitted to tell their families about their travel destinations; however, families always have a way to contact someone at the CIA to find out where an officer is located in case of emergency.
In the MISSION OF VENGEANCE spy thriller, CIA spymaster Corey Pearson was a NOC. Here are four snippets from the novel which illustrate what the CIA NOC world is like:
Snippet 1: “As you know, there’s a huge Jimmy Buffett concert in two days. Do you think they’ll strike there?”
“No. Russian tourists are attending, not to mention Spetsnaz soldiers and even Boris Markov himself. Hezbollah will hit somewhere else.”
“Can you guarantee the attack won’t be by Spetsnaz? If it is, anywhere in the Caribbean, not only will your chances for defecting to America be reduced to zero, we’ll let Putin himself know that you are a double agent, working against his Caribbean scheme. If Markov doesn’t kill you, I will.”
Snippet 2: “As a NOC, you know there are no guarantees in the spy business. You live a deep-cover life of lies and props. I know you are not a marine biologist traversing the Caribbean trying to save the Nassau Grouper. ‘Corey Pearson’ is a false name, and you work for a phony front company. You don’t use diplomatic cover, so I know what you do is dangerous and if you get caught doing something illegal you have no diplomatic immunity to use for protection from prosecution, and America will deny your existence. The GRU and Spetsnaz operate in the same manner, and I cannot guarantee the attack will be by them or by activated Hezbollah sleeper cells. I can, however, give you my best judgement. I can also give you added reassurance that I want to cooperate by telling you the truth in order to defect.”
Snippet 3: When CBIF was formed, General Morrison recruited Corey and reassigned him as a NOC, a risky operative classification. Corey no longer enjoyed the protection of diplomatic immunity. As Bocharov reminded him, if caught by foreign intelligence in an unfriendly land, he had no protection from prosecution from that country’s laws. Instead of pretending to be a fake diplomat, Corey assumed deep cover and distanced himself from the luxurious State Department life, complete with its rich foods and top-flight martinis. He used his cover as a marine biologist, along with a vast mosaic of lies and props, to penetrate organizations in South America, Latin America and the Caribbean that posed threats to America.
Snippet 4: “That’s why I recommended to General Morrison that the entire operation be moved out of the embassy after CBIF was created. Using diplomatic cover is a joke. I moved the agents out to safe houses and made them NOCs. We were so easily identified when housed inside the embassy. My office was the only one with a cipher lock on the outside door.”
“Yeah, I remember. Any foreign intel guy walking through would notice that right away. But you had no choice. The secret files we stored were highly sensitive.”
End of Snippets
Lastly, this video Former CIA Director Explains What CIA Operatives Are Really Like features Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the NSA, who quickly explains what CIA operatives are actually like after visiting more than 50 CIA stations and bases throughout the world.
Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community, and relishes traveling to the Florida Keys and Key West, the Bahamas and Caribbean. He combines both passions in his Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Check out his latest spy thriller: MISSION OF VENGEANCE.