NOCs Hard for the CIA

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A little-noticed provision in the public section of a mostly-classified Senate intelligence bill signals that the Central Intelligence Agency is more serious than ever about plans to expand its program of setting up cover jobs for CIA officers outside of the usual posts in the State Department and other government agencies. Some believe the CIA's non-official cover, or NOC (pronounced KNOCK), program is the likeliest way for the agency to penetrate terrorist organizations or even, say, the nuclear program of Kim Jong Il's closed regime in North Korea. "With terrorism, counter-proliferation — the kinds of threats that we face — you have to be more inventive in the way you deploy people overseas," said a knowledgeable U.S. official. "So you are going to have a lot of people who are not under official cover." America's most famous NOC is Valerie Plame, the CIA operative exposed last summer after a columnist reported that Bush administration officials had said she was behind a 2002 trip by her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, to Africa to investigate claims that Saddam had sought to buy uranium from Niger.

NOCs have traditionally been a tough position to fill. Though not a complete solution to the CIA's problem of gathering human intelligence, the NOC program can help. It's extremely expensive and dangerous to build a credible non-official cover by planting someone in, say, a corporate executive post in Islamabad or as a cell phone salesman in Madrid — positions in which a CIA officer would have no diplomatic immunity from arrest by the host government and little protection from deadly retribution by terrorists. Worse, the CIA has faced major bureaucratic hurdles in setting up an infrastructure to ensure that an NOC appears to be paid by a cover employer while actually being paid a government salary but at the same time only liable for taxes on a — often much lower — CIA officer's wage.

The Senate intelligence committee quietly passed a measure early this month that would make it clear that the CIA can "pay salaries, allowances, retirement, insurance, and other benefits to CIA employees under non-official cover in a manner consistent with their cover." This also suggests that a NOC might be allowed to keep at least some of the larger salary that goes with their fake job. Although some experts believe CIA Director George Tenet already has much if not all of this authority, this legislation would give the CIA additional flexibility. "This is intended to sort of cut through some of the paperwork," the U.S. official said. "There shouldn't be any excuse for not doing these kinds of things." Demonstrating the importance of non-official cover across the entire U.S. intelligence community, the Senate bill also makes permanent the authority for the Pentagon to use front companies in its intelligence gathering, an authority that until now has been subject to renewal.