CIA Secrets Available by Subscription

John Crewdson had an interesting piece in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune revealing that commercial databases contain information about CIA covert operatives and supposedly secret facilities.

She is 52 years old, married, grew up in the Kansas City suburbs and now lives in Virginia, in a new three-bedroom house. Anyone who can qualify for a subscription to one of the online services that compile public information also can learn that she is a CIA employee who, over the past decade, has been assigned to several American embassies in Europe. The CIA asked the Tribune not to publish her name because she is a covert operative, and the newspaper agreed. But unbeknown to the CIA, her affiliation and those of hundreds of men and women like her have somehow become a matter of public record, thanks to the Internet.

When the Tribune searched a commercial online data service, the result was a virtual directory of more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal agency telephone numbers and the locations of some two dozen secret CIA facilities around the United States.

Only recently has the CIA recognized that in the Internet age its traditional system of providing cover for clandestine employees working overseas is fraught with holes, a discovery that is said to have “horrified” CIA Director Porter Goss. “Cover is a complex issue that is more complex in the Internet age,” said the CIA’s chief spokeswoman, Jennifer Dyck. “There are things that worked previously that no longer work. Director Goss is committed to modernizing the way the agency does cover in order to protect our officers who are doing dangerous work.” Dyck declined to detail the remedies “since we don’t want the bad guys to know what we’re fixing.”

[…]

The Tribune is not disclosing the identities of any of the CIA employees uncovered in its database searches, the searching techniques used or other details that might put agency employees or operatives at risk. The CIA apparently was unaware of the extent to which its employees were in the public domain until being provided with a partial list of names by the Tribune.

At a minimum, the CIA’s seeming inability to keep its own secrets invites questions about whether the Bush administration is doing enough to shield its covert CIA operations from public scrutiny, even as the Justice Department focuses resources on a two-year investigation into whether someone in the administration broke the law by disclosing to reporters the identity of clandestine CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Not all of the 2,653 employees whose names were produced by the Tribune search are supposed to be working under cover. More than 160 are intelligence analysts, an occupation that is not considered a covert position, and senior CIA executives such as Tenet are included on the list. But an undisclosed number of those on the list–the CIA would not say how many–are covert employees, and some are known to hold jobs that could make them terrorist targets.

Other potential targets include at least some of the two dozen CIA facilities uncovered by the Tribune search. Most are in northern Virginia, within a few miles of the agency’s headquarters. Several are in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington state. There is one in Chicago.

Some are heavily guarded. Others appear to be unguarded private residences that bear no outward indication of any affiliation with the CIA.

While this is obviously quite problematic, it is rather idiotic to assert that the issue is “whether the Bush administration is doing enough to shield its covert CIA operations from public scrutiny.” Indeed, several paragraphs further into the piece, we learn,

One senior U.S. official used a barnyard epithet to describe the agency’s traditional system of providing many of its foreign operatives with easily decipherable covers that include little more than a post office box for an address and a non-existent company as an employer.

It’s not the job of a presidential administration to ensure that the nation’s intelligence professionals are using tradecraft that stands up to modern investigative techniques; that’s the job of the Agency’s senior leadership. I would say that, by the way, if this had happened under the Clinton administration. Technical oversight of this nature is simply beyond the span of control of elected policymakers or even senior appointees. What is within the scope of their duty is fixing the problem now that it has been revealed.

That criticism aside, I join Marshall Manson in commending the Tribune for its discretion in not publishing the names of operatives discovered and sparing us other details that might make it easier for our enemies to replicate Crewdson’s work.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    I’m reminded of the story, perhaps apocryphal, though it is told by many from the CIA, about a junior CIA officer who was assigned to pick up a defector from the airport and check him into a local hotel under an assumed name.

    In the process of doing so, he noticed that the reservation form had a big, red “CIA” stamped on it and figured that the cover had been completely blown.

    As the story goes, though, that “CIA” only meant “cash in advance.”

    On a more serous note, though, the books by Philip Agee that identified probably CIA officers led to a change in the way some of the bureaucracy functions. State used to have its “stud book,” a regularly updated volume of bio information about State officers giving details about their various postings abroad. Knowing how diplomatic cover is used, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out who didn’t fall into the “normal” pattern of State assignments. This let one make assumptions and draw conclusions about those not falling with in the normal pattern.

    As a result, the stud-book, already classified–though it may have been only “administratively controlled”–was simply shut down. It was the appropriate step for the time and technology. Now we need more appropriate measures for our current time and technologies.

  2. legion says:

    Itâ??s not the job of a presidential administration to ensure that the nationâ??s intelligence professionals are using tradecraft that stands up to modern investigative techniques; thatâ??s the job of the Agencyâ??s senior leadership.

    While that’s technically true, James, who keeps appointing incompetents to senior leadership posts all across the government? When Bush says ‘I like this guy. Give ‘im a job,’ no two-bit staffer is going to tell him the guys a crook or an idiot, or even just completely unsuited for the job.

    It used to be that in agencies like the CIA, the directorship was a political reward, but still handed to people with some qualification or background in that area. The actual ‘heavy lifting’ of running the agency was done by the #2 and the admin deputies, who were typically career types from within. But wholesale replacements of senior execs with more political clones & sinecures whose PAC donation record is more important than their resume has eliminated any ability to fix this problem from within…

  3. DC Loser says:

    Read former CIA Clandestine Operator Larry Johnson’s take on this over at TPMCafe.com

  4. James Joyner says:

    legion: Who is it that Bush has appointed to oversee intelligence that is not qualified?

    At CIA, hHe kept George Tenent around and then replaced him with Porter Goss, who was a CIA officer and head of the House Intel Committee. The DDCIA Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency is Vice Admiral Albert M. Calland, a career intel guy. (The CIA’s website is down at the moment, so I can’t access the bios of the other top officials.)

    On the DNI side, Negroponte has was a career FSO. Hayden is a four star career intel officer with a stint as head of NSA under his belt.

  5. DC Loser says:

    The secret CIA facilties are a joke. Any taxi driver in Northern Virginia could tell you where they are without batting their eyes.

  6. legion says:

    James,
    I was speaking more of exec branch agencies in general than the intel community specifically… In particular, from the crowd of think-tank yuppies that had no business trying to rebuild the Iraqi economy in the early days under Bremer, to the stories of large numbers of senior DoJ lawyers being driven out, to Ken Mehlman shutting out a State dept appointment as a favor to Abramoff, to guys like Brownie and Claude Allen having jobs at all.

    Sure, any system is going to have some ‘reward’ positions, but in order for the gov’t to function at all, there have to be some positions of responsibility where job performance matters more than political affiliation. I think this administration disagrees…

  7. James Joyner says:

    legion: I can’t disagree on Brownie and I’m sure there are a few other examples. Not sure on Allen; I’d never heard of him before the shoplifting incident.

    From my vantagepoint the administration seemed to be better than its predecessor at appointing adults. How many 20-something kids fresh from their stints as Rhodes Scholars had high level positions in the Clinton administration?

  8. Jonk says:

    Finger pointing is useless. This ties directly into my previous couple of posts dealing with Beltway Mercs calling the shots instead of the professionals. This idiocy is killing us…

    I am with Goss, we need to get back in the business of keeping secrets…secret. *slaps forehead and shakes head*

  9. anjin-san says:

    James,

    Not sure I see your problem with Clinton’s “kids”. After all, the Clinton era was essentially a period of peace and prosperity for our country. I was not a huge Clinton fan at the time, but in the rear-view mirror he is looking positivly Jeffersonian.

  10. Rachel says:

    But remember anjin-san, he did not have a 9/11on his watch. Almost (WTC attack, 1993), but not quite.

  11. Bithead says:

    By two means million people in chief peace ;

    * an agreement between two sides equitable to both.

    * A cup in Chile shun by one side and the slavery their results from it.

    I submit Clinton gave us the latter.

  12. Bithead says:

    All of this would seem to raise two questions:

    * why the press was having such a field day with the Plaime game when anybody with a decent copy of Internet Explorer could pick up the information that was supposedly leaked?

    * Why the press, if it is so well informed about matters political and so worldly, would think that anybody else would have such a problem?

    I figure either way, the mainstream media comes out on the short end of this fuzzy stick.

  13. Bithead says:

    A cup in Chile shun by one side and the slavery their results from it.

    (Sigh)
    /
    A complete capitulation by one side and the slavery that results from it.

  14. G A Phillips says:

    Anjin-san, ” he is looking positively Jeffersonian” Why Dude?