Plame and the Nature of CIA Covers
Media Matters for America has put out a press release saying the widely-quoted (including by OTB) AP story about the Valerie Plame Case was wrong:
In a July 15 article reporting new details in the ongoing criminal investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity, the Associated Press distorted a remark by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to falsely report that Wilson “acknowledged his wife [Plame] was no longer in an undercover job at the time Novak’s column first identified her.” In fact, Wilson merely emphasized that his wife’s cover was blown at the moment when columnist Robert D. Novak revealed her identity in a July 2003 column.
[A]s Media Matters for America has documented, multiple press outlets reported that Plame was an undercover CIA operative at the time Novak wrote his column.
They report that AP has put out a “corrected” version of the piece and that,
In an interview Friday, Wilson said his comment was meant to reflect that his wife lost her ability to be a covert agent because of the leak, not that she had stopped working for the CIA beforehand.
But, as Glenn Reynolds points out,
Nobody ever said that she wasn’t working for the CIA — the question is whether she was a covert spy or a paperpusher, and the answer seems pretty clearly to be the latter. And “ability to be a covert agent” isn’t the same as actually being a covert agent, though he hopes you’ll miss that. This is, sadly, typical of Wilson here, though it seems that she lost her ability to be a covert agent when she married Wilson, really.
Meanwhile, LAT’s Greg Miller weighs in with a piece today entitled, “Shades of Cover”
[…] Although often cast in binary terms Ã¢€” an operative is either undercover or not Ã¢€” there are distinct categories of cover that CIA operatives 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.
Plame’s cover Ã¢€” in which she posed as a private energy consultant while actually working for a CIA department tracking weapons proliferation Ã¢€” was somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said it was unlikely Plame was in danger as a result of being identified. An internal CIA review concluded that her exposure caused minimal damage, mainly because she had been working at headquarters for years, former officials familiar with the review said. Still, her clandestine career is over, and the outrage among many current and former case officers lingers because cover is something they go to such great lengths to protect.
The vast majority of the agency’s overseas officers are under what is known as “official cover,” which means they are posing as employees of another government agency. The State Department allows hundreds of its positions in embassies around the world to be occupied by CIA officers representing themselves as diplomats.
A more rare and dangerous job category is “nonofficial cover” Ã¢€” or “NOC” (pronounced knock) Ã¢€” in which CIA officers pose as employees of international corporations, as scientists or as members of other professions. Such covers tend to provide a plausible reason to work long periods overseas and come in contact with foreign nationals the agency wants to recruit.
Plame worked under official cover early in her career, but moved to nonofficial cover during the 1990s, maintaining that status after she returned from overseas to work at CIA headquarters.
In recent years, she has worked in the counter-proliferation division of the agency’s clandestine service. Despite her continued use of commercial cover until Novak’s column, some former CIA officials contend she was not a NOC in the purest sense of the term, because operatives in that super-secret program rarely go near agency facilities, let alone take jobs at headquarters.
The piece provides a fascinating glimpse into the odd lengths that CIA operatives go through to protect their identity, even when they live in a town where 1 in 5 people work for the Agency.