A few illusions have been shattered in the Trump era. The illusion of pundit expertise melted in the election cycle. The illusion or hope that the media would get anything right evaporated. A major illusion that has not stood the test of the Trump era is that our intelligence community is competent. Like the other institutions, it just holds power and there is no mechanism yet to replace it. It should come as no surprise then that our IC has now given up on spy school and is merely turning corporate employees into America’s new undercover spies.
This is an outgrowth of CIA’s prior programs, and a logical extension of the Agency since its inception. CIA formed for a variety of reasons, and our Constitution made it illegal for a domestic agency like the FBI to do a CIA’s job so we had to form a new agency. The book The Wedge covers all the problems with this set up. There was a class element to this as CIA was full of Ivy men who liked to joke that the FBI boys had horrible pronunciation of Spanish when sent to South America for assignments (Grass-e-ass, sen-yor).
The Agency itself was a slapdash creation as the OSS took in any and all comers who often had communist backgrounds. CIA was not going to be competent because we were trying to copy the British and it was another imperial function that we had to come up with on the fly to inherit their old empire. It is sometimes written that the British, French and Vatican have the best intel networks, and that British espionage was vastly superior to the Germans in WW2. This makes sense if one considers what an intel network is and who had a global network of trade. For example, the British had global network of private individuals who knew nations, tribes, customs and who mattered where thanks to their maritime empire. It was not a turnkey phenomenon but it was far more advanced than the global private network America to draw from had in 1947.
America grew out a network but the Church Committee forced CIA to make some changes. It also allowed for a centralization of power to focus more on the bureaucracy as field agents were let go and the Agency focused on sigint rather than human intel. Were we ever successful? Ishmael Jones‘ book The Human Factor says no. For the record, we never recruited a Soviet spy. All the people who cooperated were volunteers, defectors or walk ins. We still tried and still had budgets to use. The CIA’s standard operating system was for agents to have official cover and be State Department linked. This changed in the ’80s as they developed the non-official cover pipeline of agents who could have access to non-diplomats and approach individuals in manners that State Department officials could not. This was Jones’ career.
It was also a failure. Jones’ book documents the reluctance of CIA to support the program or take any chances. CIA was only looking out for itself, its budget and reputation in DC. Despite being charged with protecting America as part of the NatSec establishment, it became like any other bureaucracy. Jones was an employee assigned to employers, and those employers were compensated for this cover. He would have to switch identities in different countries like any other spy, but in his assigned country he was an employee of XYZ firm. Even when Jones’ and co-workers were undercover as random employees, they still had to deal with normal bureaucrat games.
This is where the new CIA program demonstrates that it is just the new stage of this non-official cover game. Cover has become very difficult as electronic surveillance prevents the identity switching. Biometrics makes that impossible. Digital footprints makes everything tougher, not just to elude the agencies but to hide intel officers’ pasts. It is not a giant leap from Jones’ day to this.
Even a switch of employer, or an unexplained gap in one’s résumé, can be a giveaway to a foreign intelligence service, say former officials. In response, the agency has also shifted to recruiting individuals within the companies they already work at, and, with the approval of corporate leadership, secretly transitioning those persons onto the CIA payroll, and training them intermittently and clandestinely, far from any known CIA facility.
Sometimes, when these individuals are finished working for the agency, they simply transition back to a full-time job for the company where they already “work.” In one recent case, a NOC who had worked at a U.S. company as a “full-time career employee” and was transitioning out of his CIA work was “softly landed” back into another position at the same firm — with the agency paying for his moving expenses and a government severance package, says a former senior intelligence official.
The agency, which former officials say recruits and emplaces NOCs in the technology, finance and film industries, among other sectors, targets both major U.S. corporations and smaller U.S. companies, which are sometimes preferred because they are not beholden to shareholders.
How different is this from what Jones went through as a fake employee? It is a little more Stasi in that any employee you work with at your firm with international exposure may have a spy background. The issue of government workers moving to NGOs when the left is not in nominal power but then sliding back to government employment with a new leftist administration is similar.
It is just in a corporate setting, which throws off our default reactions. This feels wrong, yet it is no different. These people switch on and off. Consider the number of limited bid or no bid contracts these large multinational firms receive. The managerial class Burnham wrote about stretched across both the public and private side. This is just the latest sign of how both sides have melded into one.
The article does dodge a few issues where the system itself made problems. The OPM hack was a Chinese op, but why was that data entrusted to a bid that went to a Chinese owned firm. China and Russia have been removing tech from sensitive intel situations. Cannot hack and download an email data dump if there is no email. The spread of biometric data collection was a post-9/11 trend that the federal government pushed. We could not just end Muslim immigration and profile Arabs in a Fortress America move, so instead we scanned everything and everyone. Every other nation copied us once they could afford it.
No matter how good the sigint and widespread surveillance, there will always be a need for human intelligence. It might have to change into a caste system as if hereditary a la Ghislaine Maxwell taking a spot from dear old dad. CIA had to come up with this program because other countries became too sharp and also got their hands on enough data tracking to be alert to their ops. What happens when this gets cheap enough that small timers can turn this on the regime?
This new twist on non-official cover spies being actual employees of private firms feels wrong though because the last few years we have seen high profile cases of how untouchable the intel community is and how if they want to destroy someone they will, especially when they foresee any threat to all their privileges. The fact that they are now recruiting, using and then releasing back into your firm assets who will be loyal to the Agency or the Bureau first should frighten all of us. They will not just demand affirmation of the current ideology but will have assets that you may have worked with at your well known firm years ago who can provide data for your dossier. It is but another mile marker on the road deeper into empire, and one that must rely on coercion and power of the position more than persuasion and accepted authority.