The 'Fragile Mosaic' of Establishing CIA Covers

Los Angeles Times reporter Greg Miller discusses the "fragile mosaic" of deception necessary to shield the identity of CIA operatives such as Valerie Plame. An investigation is under way to determine who in the Bush administration leaked her name to reporters. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Miller.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News in Washington, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The White House of President George W. Bush has earned a reputation for closely protecting its secrets. The president is said to have no patience for leaks of information, or at least of unsanctioned leaks. But this past week, Mr. Bush found himself confronted by questions of whether one of his most trusted advisers, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, was an unnamed source at least partially responsible for leaking the identity of Valerie Plame, a one-time covert operative for the CIA. Mr. Bush did not want to answer the questions.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation. And I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed.

HANSEN: The president has in the past promised to fire any White House employee responsible for leaking Plame's identity. And Rove's future employment may hinge on technical aspects of the law that makes it a crime to disclose the identity of a covert agent. For intelligence agents, however, legal technicalities are a secondary matter if any part of their secret life is made public. Los Angeles Times correspondent Greg Miller this weekend reports on how a covert cover is built over the years. He joins us from his home outside Washington.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. GREG MILLER (LA Times Correspondent): Thank you.

HANSEN: You quote a former CIA case officer as describing cover as a mosaic. What do you mean by that?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I think he means that cover is complex. It's made up of many different ingredients, disguises, not only of a person's name but of a person's background, their employment, of other facets of their lives. They all sort of go into this broader effort to prevent somebody from discovering their true identity and their true purpose, which is to spy.

HANSEN: So take us through it just a little bit. How is a cover built and developed?

Mr. MILLER: There are different types of cover. And some are much, much more involved than others. The vast majority of CIA officers who are undercover are under what's called diplomatic cover or official cover, I should say, which means that they are posing as employees of another government agency, which mainly means the State Department. In embassies overseas, many of the positions in those embassies are really filled by CIA officers, passing themselves off as diplomats. But the most elite sort of cover status called non-official cover. CIA officers were posing as executives with international corporations or scientists or other professionals, living overseas, and spying, and having almost every facet of their lives be a product of the inventions of the cover staff at the CIA.

HANSEN: So there were fake names, fake businesses, fake addresses, fake phone numbers, all of that kind of thing?

Mr. MILLER: Fake payroll checks, fake tax records, fake everything. For those people, and those--that non-official cover, which is referred to as NOC, the risks are so great, if they are ever caught, that you can't afford not to anticipate every sort of probe that a foreign intelligence service might aim at one of your operatives.

HANSEN: So what happens when, say, a single piece of that cover is made public?

Mr. MILLER: Well, really, it starts to unravel and sometimes can lead to other elements of a person's cover. When Valerie Plame, who is the CIA operative who's in the middle of this case right now involving the White House and suspicions surrounding Karl Rove--when her name was revealed, it led to a few other aspects of her cover that could have endangered other operatives at the agency. For instance, on federal election reports she is listed as giving a thousand-dollar contribution to the Gore campaign in 1999 and listing as her employer a firm called Brewster Jenning and Associates in Boston. That was her commercial cover. There really is no such company. But if there were any other people who are connected with that company, well, now they've been damaged potentially, as well.

HANSEN: Well, what would be the purpose, then, of a cover for a CIA agent like Valerie Plame?

Mr. MILLER: Well, for Valerie Plame--she was working in the counterproliferation division at the agency's clandestine service. That's a part of the CIA that's concerned with tracking weapons proliferation around the world. And she was using commercial cover, posing as an energy analyst, as a way to make trips overseas to meet with sources. I don't imagine that she was doing much recruiting of foreign spies on those trips, but perhaps she's meeting and debriefing sources that have been already recruited. Or she may also have been meeting with representatives from foreign intelligence services during those overseas trips.

HANSEN: You know, the popular image of a covert agent is that kind of stuff of spy novels, you know, those cloak-and-dagger operatives that penetrate those deep, dark crannies of the KGB during the Cold War. But that's obviously not the norm. What is the norm?

Mr. MILLER: Right. That's a fairly romanticized sort of Hollywood version. I interviewed for the story I had in the paper this weekend a former NOC, somebody who was under non-official cover for the CIA for many years overseas, somebody who worked under cover of--as an executive at large international corporations. And he described a sort of a funny scene where he finally told his son, when his son was in his midteens, the real truth about what he did, and he said, you know, at first his son was just sort of stunned that his father had misled him for all these years and not been completely honest, but then he said his son was sort of disappointed that it wasn't like in the movies--it wasn't like James Bond; he didn't get to meet attractive foreign spies. He didn't get to carry a gun. And he didn't--his cell phone was really just a cell phone. There were no other gadgets embedded in it.

HANSEN: Greg Miller reports on the intelligence community for the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks very much.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

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