Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Discovery Causes Officials to Look at High-Risk Spying

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Discovery Causes Officials to Look at High-Risk Spying

Article excerpt

SHE WAS A CIA CASE officer working in Europe covertly, masquerading as a representative of a Texas foundation that was interested in world economics.

Unlike most CIA case officers overseas who work out of U.S. embassies and purport to be diplomats, she was operating under what CIA calls "nonofficial cover," or NOC. When a blunder led to her entrapment by French counterintelligence, she left the country, and her case eventually became a public embarrassment for both Washington and Paris.

NOCs, a former senior intelligence official said recently, "are the most difficult and costly clandestine operations to support, and the most dangerous. If you are caught, there is no diplomatic immunity. It's frequently jail or, in some countries, even death."

Today, as the roles and missions of American spying are being reviewed, administration and congressional sources say, one of the most sensitive debates in the U.S. intelligence community is whether to step up the overseas use of NOCs.

Four years ago, faced with new post-Cold War issues such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, then-CIA Director Robert M. Gates tried to increase the number of NOCs in a way that would have changed the agency's operations, a retired official said recently.

Gates will not discuss his still-secret plan to expand use of NOCs, but the former director continues to believe the time has come to cut back on the practice of having CIA officers abroad primarily operating out of embassies.

"When you were recruiting a Pole, Hungarian or Soviet," he said in an interview, "the easiest way was on the diplomatic circuit. But as we try to deal with this new range of issues, you are not going to meet any people (involved in terrorism or nuclear proliferation) on that circuit. You need to be in other circles."

Gates said, for example, a NOC with technical background working as a physicist has a better chance of striking up a relationship with someone associated with nuclear proliferation targets than a CIA case officer working as a diplomat in a U.S. embassy.

The CIA has always had some NOCs, but because of the sensitivity of their cover, almost no one wants to discuss them as they operate today, nor will any one discuss whether their numbers have increased.

In the past, some NOCs were employed by CIA proprietaries, which are companies founded and operated secretly by the agency. Others worked alone as consultants or representatives of American companies, and a few were attached to overseas offices of U.S. corporations with only one or two people in the company knowing their CIA connection.

Using NOCs, said one former top CIA official familiar with the practice, "sounds better than in fact it is." Although the technique "has value in highly selective situations where a person gains access to special information," he said, "the risk has to be commensurate with the gain, and it often isn't. …

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