October 21, 2005


The Importance of the Plame Affair (George Friedman , 10/21/05, Real Clear Politics)

The CIA is divided between the Directorate of Intelligence, which houses the analysts, and the Directorate of Operations, which houses the spies and the paramilitary forces. The spies are, in general, divided into two groups. There are those with official cover and those with non-official cover. Official cover means that the agent is working at the U.S. embassy in some country, acting as a cultural, agricultural or some other type of attaché, and is protected by diplomatic immunity. They carry out a variety of espionage functions, limited by the fact that most foreign intelligence services know who the CIA agents at the embassy are and, frankly, assume that everyone at the embassy is an agent. They are therefore followed, their home phones are tapped, and their maids deliver scraps of paper to the host government. This obviously limits the utility of these agents. Being seen with one of them automatically blows the cover of any potential recruits.

Then there are those with non-official cover, the NOCs. These agents are the backbone of the American espionage system. A NOC does not have diplomatic cover. If captured, he has no protection. Indeed, as the saying goes, if something goes wrong, the CIA will deny it has ever heard of him. A NOC is under constant pressure when he is needed by the government and is on his own when things go wrong. That is understood going in by all NOCs.

NOCs come into the program in different ways. Typically, they are recruited at an early age and shaped for the role they are going to play. Some may be tracked to follow China, and trained to be bankers based in Hong Kong. Others might work for an American engineering firm doing work in the Andes. Sometimes companies work with the CIA, knowingly permitting an agent to become an employee. In other circumstances, agents apply for and get jobs in foreign companies and work their way up the ladder, switching jobs as they go, moving closer and closer to a position of knowing the people who know what there is to know. Sometimes they receive financing to open a business in some foreign country, where over the course of their lives, they come to know and be trusted by more and more people. Ideally, the connection of these people to the U.S. intelligence apparatus is invisible. Or, if they can't be invisible due to something in their past and they still have to be used as NOCs, they develop an explanation for what they are doing that is so plausible that the idea that they are working for the CIA is dismissed or regarded as completely unlikely because it is so obvious. The complexity of the game is endless.

These are the true covert operatives of the intelligence world. Embassy personnel might recruit a foreign agent through bribes or blackmail. But at some point, they must sit across from the recruit and show their cards: "I'm from the CIA and...." At that point, they are in the hands of the recruit. A NOC may never once need to do this. He may take decades building up trusting relationships with intelligence sources in which the source never once suspects that he is speaking to the CIA, and the NOC never once gives a hint as to who he actually is.

It is an extraordinary life. On the one hand, NOCs may live well. The Number Two at a Latin American bank cannot be effective living on a U.S. government salary. NOCs get to live the role and frequently, as they climb higher in the target society, they live the good life. On the other hand, their real lives are a mystery to everyone. Frequently, their parents don't know what they really do, nor do their own children -- for their safety and the safety of the mission. The NOC may marry someone who cannot know who they really are. Sometimes they themselves forget who they are: It is an occupational disease and a form of madness. Being the best friend of a man whom you despise, and doing it for 20 years, is not easy. Some NOCs are recruited in mid-life and in mid-career. They spend less time in the madness, but they are less prepared for it as well. NOCs enter and leave the program in different ways -- sometimes under their real names, sometimes under completely fabricated ones. They share one thing: They live a lie on behalf of their country.

The NOCs are the backbone of American intelligence and the ones who operate the best sources -- sources who don't know they are sources. When the CIA says that it needs five to 10 years to rebuild its network, what it is really saying is that it needs five to 10 years to recruit, deploy and begin to exploit its NOCs. The problem is not recruiting them -- the life sounds cool for many recent college graduates. The crisis of the NOC occurs when he approaches the most valuable years of service, in his late 30s or so. What sounded neat at 22 rapidly becomes a mind-shattering nightmare when their two lives collide at 40.

There is an explicit and implicit contract between the United States and its NOCs. It has many parts, but there is one fundamental part: A NOC will never reveal that he is or was a NOC without special permission. When he does reveal it, he never gives specifics. The government also makes a guarantee -- it will never reveal the identity of a NOC under any circumstances and, in fact, will do everything to protect it. If you have lied to your closest friends for 30 years about who you are and why you talk to them, no government bureaucrat has the right to reveal your identity for you. Imagine if you had never told your children -- and never planned to tell your children -- that you worked for the CIA, and they suddenly read in the New York Times that you were someone other than they thought you were.

There is more to this. When it is revealed that you were a NOC, foreign intelligence services begin combing back over your life, examining every relationship you had. Anyone you came into contact with becomes suspect. Sometimes, in some countries, becoming suspect can cost you your life. Revealing the identity of a NOC can be a matter of life and death -- frequently, of people no one has ever heard of or will ever hear of again.

In short, a NOC owes things to his country, and his country owes things to the NOC. We have no idea what Valerie Plame told her family or friends about her work. It may be that she herself broke the rules, revealing that she once worked as a NOC. We can't know that, because we don't know whether she received authorization from the CIA to say things after her own identity was blown by others. She might have been irresponsible, or she might have engaged in damage control. We just don't know.

What we do know is this.

That Valerie Plame sent her husband on a high-profile CIA mission rendering everything Mr. Friedman has said nonsense?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2005 4:10 PM

So she was an NOC, and needed to live the "lie" of her deep cover for the rest of her life and the CIA...brought her back to work at Langley? AND let her recommend her husband for a CIA assignment? AND let him write about it in the NYT? I'd say that each of these things was impossible, that no one could be that stupid, except that indeed such things do seem to be possible in this stupidest of all possible worlds.

Posted by: HT at October 21, 2005 4:48 PM

Yeah, I read the article this morning. What the heck is the guy talking about? The woman had been drivbing to Langley everyday for five bloody years.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 21, 2005 6:17 PM

Perhaps I'm a pessimistic but I keep thinking that this was not a crime and that is should have been resolved a long time ago, therefore there is something else going on or Fitzgerald is going to pull a Ronnie Earle and through indictments around without backup.

Posted by: AWW at October 21, 2005 9:10 PM

> 'But at some point, they must sit across from the recruit and show their cards: "I'm from the CIA'

This is an idiotic claim. It's standard practice to claim to be working for another country, or engaged in industrial espionage, or to be a reporter working on a story. Or to just be someone who likes to shoot the breeze and buy lots of rounds.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at October 21, 2005 10:45 PM


There was no underlying crime in IranContra and Judge Walsh is probably still trying to indict someone as we speak.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2005 10:52 PM

Friedman comes from the analyst side. Not sure his description is spot on.

Best case is Libby, Hannah, Rove and/or whoever take one for the team and we move on. Otherwise, a lot of W's 3rd way initiatives that OJ so admires will be stalled as the admin does scandal control 24/7. The Dems are hoping for a 'perfect storm' of ethics issues for 2006 and love that this one is reported as Bush hiding lies about the war they oppose.

Politically, I think the dems are firing a bit early on Frist and Delay in an attempt to whip up this ethics storm. Those issues should be cleared up well before the next election. The Abramoff thing is becoming more biparstisan. Other Republican negatives should calm down: It looks like some token spending cuts may be passed and that's all the electorate really wants on pork. Iraq should be in better shape and the troops should be heading home by the midterm elections. The Katrina mess will be largely forgotten and the distortions of the initial reporting are now becoming known.

The Plame thing is the one issue that could fester a la Iran Contra and Whitewater. I think Fitzgerald would have closed shop if there were to be no indictments and the media is going to exaggerate whatever he finds. I just hope the charges are lame, don't go beyond the known players and that they are either dismissed or pled out quickly. Then we can focus on the business of tormenting Joe Wilson's buddy in Syria.

I do hope this case sets the precedent that talking to reporters about just about anything involving national security is verboten. Kristol was correct that this case essentially criminalizes politics. It also criminalizes reporting when so much is classified. I suspect it criminalizes much of what the CIA has been doing as well as the admin. If Rove & co. have to go to jail, so should many others.

Posted by: JAB at October 21, 2005 11:18 PM

Cut Rove and Libby loose and the damage is controlled.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2005 11:44 PM

The really facinating thing will be if Rove and/or Libby is indicted and at the same time Fitzgerald also indicts someone like Miller and/or Cooper on the media side. While many in the press have been ready to draw and quarter Judith since the Iraq war began, it would put media outlets like Time or the New York Times in the bizarre position of either arguing for Scooter Libby and Karl Rove's freedom along with their own reporters, or trying to heap all the blame on them while defending their people, who were told about Plame by those same people.

Posted by: John at October 22, 2005 12:39 AM

David Corn was the first to say that Valerie was 'covert'. Indict him. And watch the lefties go berserk.

The whole situation is bad for governance - it really is the criminalization of politics.

Clinton took his hits for the personal stuff, but he was never hounded (as he should have been) for his enabling of Chinese influence-buying and espionage in the US after he took office.

Of course, Watergate is the prime example, but Nixon had no teflon at all with the media or anyone else, and the wreck of the economy after his 2nd term began gave him no backstop.

I don't believe that the 'issue' will fade if Rove and/or Libby is cut loose. The bureaucratic backstabbing will only increase, because the Dems want to run 2006 exclusively on corruption. Which means the criminalization tack will just increase.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 22, 2005 1:36 AM

Jim, is there a link to Corn's outing Plame? I remember reading about it, but don't remember where I saw it.

Posted by: tefta at October 22, 2005 8:52 AM


I believe it was in The Nation, right after Wilson's op-ed in the NYT (late July 2003?). CaptainsQuarters and JustOneMinute are where I have seen Corn's name mentioned most.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 22, 2005 10:40 AM

John Podhoretz at NRO has also written that Wilson must have been Corn's source. I have also read (at various places) that Andrea Mitchell knew who Plame was and probably influenced Russert to get tangled up in the mess. She also was a 'friend' of Joe Wilson's.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 22, 2005 10:27 PM

Thanks for the tips. David Corn is such a typical New York trust-fund red-diaper baby. Has everybody seen this self serving profile: David Corn profile from Pajama Media?

Posted by: tefta at October 23, 2005 11:18 AM
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