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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.