'Illegal' Espionage

The Russian "illegals" arrested recently were spies operating under commercial covers -- as private-sector businesspeople, not as government employees. Most intelligence officers use diplomatic cover, which provides diplomatic immunity, when posted overseas. A diplomat arrested during a spy operation will be declared "persona non grata" and simply returned to his home country.

Diplomatic covers give our intelligence officers good access to foreign diplomats and government officials. It allows our officers to work officially with counterparts in friendly governments, and human sources who wish to volunteer information can be certain that they're actually dealing with an American when they're talking to an American diplomat.

Illegals, on the other hand, can approach human sources who are not open to contact from U.S. diplomats. Terrorists and nuclear proliferators will not meet with an American diplomat and do not appear at diplomatic venues, such as the cocktail party circuit. Rogue state government officials, Iranians and North Koreans, are under orders not to speak to American diplomats.

One type of cover is not better than another -- just complementary to it. The military would never suggest that the infantry is better than the artillery because both are needed.

Our weakness in human source intelligence collection is that the CIA's clandestine service relies almost exclusively on diplomatic cover. Our own "illegals" program is tiny, and the number of truly effective officers using non-diplomatic covers overseas is insignificant -- just a few of the more than a hundred thousand people in the American intelligence community. CIA management and Congress have spoken endlessly of the need to increase our use of non-diplomatic covers, and billions of dollars have been spent to do it, but it's never happened. More than 90% of CIA employees now live and work entirely within the United States. Valerie Plame, the CIA officer whose identity was "outed," was on the books as a spy serving under non-diplomatic cover, yet she spent only two months of a 21-year career in a commercially covered spy assignment overseas (according to her boss, a friend of mine).

CIA "illegals" programs never get off the ground because they don't serve the needs of bureaucracy. The scholar C.N. Parkinson observed that bureaucracies seek to create subordinates. Illegals do not work in government offices and do not fit well with the hierarchies that define bureaucracies. Illegals cannot create subordinates, and the independent nature of their missions makes them poor subordinates. Embassies and buildings in Washington, D.C., however, make excellent breeding grounds for the growth of bureaucracy.

I much preferred serving as an espionage officer under non-diplomatic cover. Despite the lack of diplomatic immunity, I was safer because terrorists and hostile governments simply didn't know who I was or where to find me. The American embassy system is like the Maginot Line: expensive, fixed in place, easily outmaneuvered.

Human source intelligence programs were the only area of achievement in which the Soviet Union soundly thrashed America. Paradoxically, the Soviets did it by operating their intelligence services like American organizations, with flexibility, creativity, and accountability. We operated, and continue to operate, our human source programs, like typical Soviet organizations, with bureaucracy, waste, and infighting. We will dramatically improve our security if we simply run intelligence collection the way we run any other American organization.

Ishmael Jones is a former deep cover CIA officer and proponent of intelligence reform. He is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Bureaucracy. His website address is www.ishmaeljones.com.
The Russian "illegals" arrested recently were spies operating under commercial covers -- as private-sector businesspeople, not as government employees. Most intelligence officers use diplomatic cover, which provides diplomatic immunity, when posted overseas. A diplomat arrested during a spy operation will be declared "persona non grata" and simply returned to his home country.

Diplomatic covers give our intelligence officers good access to foreign diplomats and government officials. It allows our officers to work officially with counterparts in friendly governments, and human sources who wish to volunteer information can be certain that they're actually dealing with an American when they're talking to an American diplomat.

Illegals, on the other hand, can approach human sources who are not open to contact from U.S. diplomats. Terrorists and nuclear proliferators will not meet with an American diplomat and do not appear at diplomatic venues, such as the cocktail party circuit. Rogue state government officials, Iranians and North Koreans, are under orders not to speak to American diplomats.

One type of cover is not better than another -- just complementary to it. The military would never suggest that the infantry is better than the artillery because both are needed.

Our weakness in human source intelligence collection is that the CIA's clandestine service relies almost exclusively on diplomatic cover. Our own "illegals" program is tiny, and the number of truly effective officers using non-diplomatic covers overseas is insignificant -- just a few of the more than a hundred thousand people in the American intelligence community. CIA management and Congress have spoken endlessly of the need to increase our use of non-diplomatic covers, and billions of dollars have been spent to do it, but it's never happened. More than 90% of CIA employees now live and work entirely within the United States. Valerie Plame, the CIA officer whose identity was "outed," was on the books as a spy serving under non-diplomatic cover, yet she spent only two months of a 21-year career in a commercially covered spy assignment overseas (according to her boss, a friend of mine).

CIA "illegals" programs never get off the ground because they don't serve the needs of bureaucracy. The scholar C.N. Parkinson observed that bureaucracies seek to create subordinates. Illegals do not work in government offices and do not fit well with the hierarchies that define bureaucracies. Illegals cannot create subordinates, and the independent nature of their missions makes them poor subordinates. Embassies and buildings in Washington, D.C., however, make excellent breeding grounds for the growth of bureaucracy.

I much preferred serving as an espionage officer under non-diplomatic cover. Despite the lack of diplomatic immunity, I was safer because terrorists and hostile governments simply didn't know who I was or where to find me. The American embassy system is like the Maginot Line: expensive, fixed in place, easily outmaneuvered.

Human source intelligence programs were the only area of achievement in which the Soviet Union soundly thrashed America. Paradoxically, the Soviets did it by operating their intelligence services like American organizations, with flexibility, creativity, and accountability. We operated, and continue to operate, our human source programs, like typical Soviet organizations, with bureaucracy, waste, and infighting. We will dramatically improve our security if we simply run intelligence collection the way we run any other American organization.

Ishmael Jones is a former deep cover CIA officer and proponent of intelligence reform. He is the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Bureaucracy. His website address is www.ishmaeljones.com.