By George Friedman
There are three rules concerning political scandal in the United States. First, every administration has scandals. Second, the party in opposition will always claim that there has never been an administration as corrupt as the one currently occupying the White House. Three, two is almost never true. It is going to be tough for any government to live up to the Grant or Harding administrations for financial corruption, or the Nixon and Lincoln administrations for political corruption — for instance, was Lincoln’s secretary of war really preparing a coup d’etat before the president’s assassination? And sex scandals — Clinton is not the gold standard. Harding was having sex with his mistress in the Oval Office — and no discussion was possible over whether it was actually sex. Andrew Jackson’s wife was unfairly accused of being a prostitute. Grover Cleveland had an illegitimate child. Let’s not start on John F. Kennedy.
Political scandal is the national sport — the only unchanging spectator activity where a fine time is had by all, save the turkey who got caught this time. That is the fourth rule: Americans love a good scandal, and politicians usually manage to give them one. Thus, the Tom DeLay story is the epitome of national delight. Whether DeLay broke the law or the Texas prosecutor who claims he did is a Democratic hack out to make a name for himself matters little. A good time will be had by all, and in a few years no one will remember it. Does anyone remember Bert Lance or Richard Secord?
As we discussed in previous weeks, scandals become geopolitically significant when they affect the ability of the president to conduct foreign policy. That has not yet happened to George W. Bush, but it might happen. There is, however, one maturing scandal that interests us in its own right: the Valerie Plame affair, in which Karl Rove, the most important adviser to the president, and I. Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to the vice president, apparently identified Plame as a CIA agent — or at least did not vigorously deny that she was one when they were contacted by reporters. Given that this happened during a time of war, in which U.S. intelligence services are at the center of the war — and are not as effective as the United States might wish — the Plame affair needs to be examined and understood in its own right. Moreover, as an intelligence company, we have a particular interest in how intelligence matters are handled.
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. In the course of events, reporters contacted two senior officials in the White House — Rove and Libby. Under the least-damaging scenario we have heard, the reporters already knew that Plame had worked as a NOC. Rove and Libby, at this point, were obligated to say, at the very least, that they could neither confirm nor deny the report. In fact, their duty would have been quite a bit more: Their job was to lie like crazy to mislead the reporters. Rove and Libby had top security clearances and were senior White House officials. It was their sworn duty, undertaken when they accepted their security clearance, to build a “bodyguard of lies” — in Churchill’s phrase — around the truth concerning U.S. intelligence capabilities.
Some would argue that if the reporters already knew her identity, the cat was out of the bag and Rove and Libby did nothing wrong. Others would argue that if Plame or her husband had publicly stated that she was a NOC, Rove and Libby were freed from their obligation. But the fact is that legally and ethically, nothing relieves them of the obligation to say nothing and attempt to deflect the inquiry. This is not about Valerie Plame, her husband or Time Magazine. The obligation exists for the uncounted number of NOCs still out in the field.
Americans stay safe because of NOCs. They are the first line of defense. If the system works, they will be friends with Saudi citizens who are financing al Qaeda. The NOC system was said to have been badly handled under the Clinton administration — this is the lack of humint that has been discussed since the 9-11 attacks. The United States paid for that. And that is what makes the Rove-Libby leak so stunning. The obligation they had was not only to Plame, but to every other NOC leading a double life who is in potentially grave danger.
Imagine, if you will, working in Damascus as a NOC and reading that the president’s chief adviser had confirmed the identity of a NOC. As you push into middle age, wondering what happened to your life, the sudden realization that your own government threatens your safety might convince you to resign and go home. That would cost the United States an agent it had spent decades developing. You don’t just pop a new agent in his place. That NOC’s resignation could leave the United States blind at a critical moment in a key place. Should it turn out that Rove and Libby not only failed to protect Plame’s identity but deliberately leaked it, it would be a blow to the heart of U.S. intelligence. If just one critical NOC pulled out and the United States went blind in one location, the damage could be substantial. At the very least, it is a risk the United States should not have to incur.
The New York Times and Time Magazine have defended not only the decision to publish Plame’s name, but also have defended hiding the identity of those who told them her name. Their justification is the First Amendment. We will grant that they had the right to publish statements concerning Plame’s role in U.S. intelligence; we cannot grant that they had an obligation to publish it. There is a huge gap between the right to publish and a requirement to publish. The concept of the public’s right to know is a shield that can be used by the press to hide irresponsibility. An article on the NOC program conceivably might have been in the public interest, but it is hard to imagine how identifying a particular person as part of that program can be deemed as essential to an informed public.
But even if we regard the press as unethical by our standards, their actions were not illegal. On the other hand, if Rove and Libby even mentioned the name of Valerie Plame in the context of being a CIA employee — NOC or not — on an unsecured line to a person without a security clearance or need to know, while the nation was waging war, that is the end of the story. It really doesn’t matter why or whether there was a plan or anything. The minimal story — that they talked about Plame with a reporter — is the end of the matter.
We can think of only one possible justification for this action: That it was done on the order of the president. The president has the authority to suspend or change security regulations if required by the national interest. The Plame affair would be cleared up if it turns out Rove and Libby were ordered to act as they did by the president. Perhaps the president is prevented by circumstances from coming forward and lifting the burden from Rove and Libby. If that is the case, it could cost him his right-hand man. But absent that explanation, it is difficult to justify the actions that were taken.
Ultimately, the Plame affair points to a fundamental problem in intelligence. As those who have been in the field have told us, the biggest fear is that someone back in the home office will bring the operation down. Sometimes it will be a matter of state: sacrificing a knight for advantage on the chessboard. Sometimes it is a parochial political battle back home. Sometimes it is carelessness, stupidity or cruelty. This is when people die and lives are destroyed. But the real damage, if it happens often enough or no one seems to care, will be to the intelligence system. If the agent determines that his well-being is not a centerpiece of government policy, he won’t remain an agent long.
On a personal note, let me say this: one of the criticisms conservatives have of liberals is that they do not understand that we live in a dangerous world and, therefore, that they underestimate the effort needed to ensure national security. Liberals have questioned the utility and morality of espionage. Conservatives have been champions of national security and of the United States’ overt and covert capabilities. Conservatives have condemned the atrophy of American intelligence capabilities. Whether the special prosecutor indicts or exonerates Rove and Libby legally doesn’t matter. Valerie Plame was a soldier in service to the United States, unprotected by uniform or diplomatic immunity. I have no idea whether she served well or poorly, or violated regulations later. But she did serve. And thus, she and all the other NOCs were owed far more — especially by a conservative administration — than they got.
Even if that debt wasn’t owed to Plame, it remains in place for all the other spooks standing guard in dangerous places.
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