WASHINGTON — Several years ago, a senior officer in the CIA clandestine service attended a closed-door conference for overseas operatives. Speakers included case officers who were working in the manner Hollywood usually portrays spies — out on their own.
Most CIA officers abroad pose as U.S. diplomats. But those given what’s called non-official cover are known as NOCs, pronounced “knocks,” and they typically pose as business executives. At the forum, the NOCs spoke of their cover jobs, their false identities and measures taken to protect them. Few said much about gathering intelligence.
A colleague passed a caustic note to the senior officer. “Lots of business,” it read. “Little espionage.”
Twelve years after the CIA began a major push to get its operatives out of embassy cubicles and into foreign universities, businesses and other local perches to collect intelligence on terrorists and rogue nations, the effort has been a disappointment, current and former U.S. officials say. Along with other parts of the CIA, the budget of the so-called Global Deployment Initiative, which covers the NOC program, is now being cut.
“It was a colossal flop,” a former senior CIA official said in sentiments echoed by a dozen former colleagues, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program.
Spurred by Congress after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA rushed to put its eyes and ears in gritty corners of the globe where al-Qaida and other adversaries operate or recruit. The risk was considerable: Unlike CIA officers in embassies, NOCs have no diplomatic immunity if caught, and could face imprisonment or worse.
The CIA spent at least $3 billion on the program, and the number of specially trained spies grew from dozens to hundreds. The entire clandestine service is believed to total about 5,000 people.
But because of inexperience, bureaucratic hurdles, lack of language skills and other problems, only a few of the deep cover officers recruited useful intelligence sources, several former officers said.
Some of the most ambitious efforts were aimed at Iran, former officers said. The CIA created front companies and elaborate fake identities for operatives trying to recruit sources inside Iran’s nuclear and missile procurement networks.
But Iranian authorities were able to expose American operatives, said two former senior CIA officials. They were transferred back to CIA headquarters in Virginia or other U.S. posts.
Sometimes the CIA didn’t send the right people with the right cover, said Joseph Wippl, former chief of the CIA’s Europe division. Others were posted “a zillion miles from where their targets were located,” he said.
CIA leaders also were reluctant to put the special spies in harm’s way.
“There was just a great unwillingness to put NOCs in really, really dangerous places,” said another former case officer. “If you’re a high-grade agency manager, are you going to sign off on a memo that puts Joe Schmuckatelli in Pyongyang? Whether you are a careerist or not, that is a hard decision for anybody to make.”
The program also was tainted by financial irregularities, according to a former senior CIA official. The CIA’s inspector general found that some NOCs billed the agency for unjustified time and expenses, three former officials said, and it forced a few to repay money.
A CIA spokesman, Todd Ebitz, declined to comment about the NOC program, its budget or its problems.
“The agency does not discuss publicly any cover techniques that it may employ,” he wrote in an email. “The CIA does keep the congressional intelligence oversight committees fully informed of its activities, which are constantly evolving to meet the threats to national security. And, while the details of the agency budget remain properly classified, sequestration and budget cutbacks have affected the entire federal government, including CIA.”
The best-known NOC was Valerie Plame. In the mid-1990s, while in Brussels, she posed as an energy analyst for a Boston-based firm, Brewster Jennings & Associates, which the CIA later acknowledged was a front company. Plame maintained her false identity after she moved back to CIA headquarters in 1997, traveling frequently to the Middle East and elsewhere to recruit agents who could spy in Iran and elsewhere.
Her CIA career ended in 2003 after Bush administration officials leaked her name to the press in an effort to discredit her husband, who had claimed the White House had manipulated intelligence on Iraq. A White House aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Plame’s best-selling book on the case, “Fair Game,” was turned into a Hollywood film.
Masking spies as engineers, consultants or other professions has long been part of the CIA playbook. But the push took on new urgency after the 2001 terrorist attacks exposed the CIA’s lack of informants inside al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.
It wasn’t that CIA officers were expected to personally infiltrate al-Qaida. But working outside the embassy might make it easier to recruit local sources in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere who could collect intelligence on terrorist money, aims and intentions.
In 2004, then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss announced a new effort to put more officers under deep cover to gain what he called “close-in access to the plans and intentions” of America’s adversaries. Soon after, Congress passed legislation permitting undercover CIA officers serving overseas to keep salaries from their civilian cover jobs even if it exceeded their federal paychecks.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee pressed the CIA to go further. They attached a provision to their 2006 intelligence authorization measure questioning whether the spy service was “committed to doing what is needed to ensure that NOC operations are successful.”
The agency doubled down. A growing number of recruits at the CIA training facility at Camp Peary, Va., known as the Farm — including the class of 2008, the largest in CIA history — was made up of NOCs, former officials said.
Unlike their classmates, they were barred from making cellphone calls or using the Internet in order to hide any ties to the CIA. Later, many would operate in their own names, holding real jobs for multinational companies around the globe.
But when it came to penetrating terrorist networks, NOCs suffered the same shortcomings as other CIA officers — too few spoke Urdu, Pashto, Dari or other necessary languages, or could disappear in local cultures, former CIA officers say.
In 2008, a former CIA operative’s biting memoir, “The Human Factor,” was published, describing his 15 years overseas targeting nuclear networks and terrorist groups. He wrote that the CIA had spent at least $3 billion since 2001 to get deep-cover operatives overseas, but only a few had been successfully deployed.
“There were only a handful of effective NOCs overseas, and that never changed,” the author, who uses the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, said in a telephone interview.