NOC, NOC. Who's There? A Special Kind of Agent

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For decades, a varying number of NOCs (the exact figure is classified) have been installed abroad in big multinational corporations, small companies or bogus academic posts. The more genteel rules of traditional espionage do not apply to NOCs. When the Soviets caught a diplomat doing spy work during the cold war, they roughed him up a little and sent him home. Unmasked NOCs, on the other hand, have met with much harsher fates: CIA officer Hugh Redmond was caught in Shanghai in 1951 posing as an employee of a British import-export company and spent 19 years in a Chinese prison before dying there. In early 1995 the French rolled up five CIA officers, including a woman who had been working as a NOC under business cover for about five years. Although the NOC caught in Paris in 1995 was simply sent home, "it might not have been so easy in an Arab country," says a former CIA official familiar with the matter. "[NOCs] have no diplomatic status, so they can end up in slammers."

A NOC's ability to run silent and deep has led Ohio Republican Mike DeWine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to press the CIA to invest more heavily in NOC officers, adding that the CIA's traditional spies, posing as diplomats and trained to infiltrate governments, are not well positioned to penetrate stateless gangs of terrorists who don't go to embassy parties. DeWine called for a larger NOC program in a report issued by Congress in July — and many ex-spooks were surprised when the CIA cleared the document for public consumption. But the agency has resisted such efforts before, arguing that NOCs are too expensive and too dangerous to expand the program by much.

Though Plame's cover is now blown, it probably began to unravel years ago when Wilson first asked her out. Rustmann describes Plame as an "exceptional officer" but says her ability to remain under cover was jeopardized by her marriage in 1998 to the higher-profile American diplomat. Plame all but came in from the cold last week, making her first public appearance, at a Washington lunch in honor of her husband, who was receiving an award for whistle blowing. The blown spy's one not-so-secret request? No photographs, please.

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