No NOC-NOC jokes
The toughest job a D.O. case officer can have is penetrating a terrorist cell. But the agency's challenge is not just hiring more spies with the right language skills and cultural backgrounds. It's also getting the right spies into the right places. D.O. officers who work under "official cover" typically are assigned to U.S. embassies under a fictitious job title. From such postings, they are expected to meet and recruit sources of information from the host government or from other targets. For lots of intelligence-gathering activities, such postings are perfectly suitable. Plus, official cover gives them one other big advantage: If they get arrested or detained for doing something the host country doesn't like, they can't be jailed for any significant length of time or prosecuted criminally.
Even before the 9/11 attacks--for at least a decade, in fact--the D.O. has been working to expand the number of case officers working under nonofficial cover. These "NOCs," as they're called, typically work far from embassies on "platforms"--jobs or other living arrangements--that have no discernible ties to Washington. Traditionally, NOCs have worked as executives in multinational or import-export businesses. Today, the D.O. has relaxed the rules on how and where NOCs can live and work. There are risks, of course--arrest being just one. But the potential rewards have convinced CIA officials that the risks are worth it. Jennifer Sims and Burton Gerber, former intelligence officials and the principal authors of Transforming U.S. Intelligence, advocate using "doctors, agricultural experts, or educators [who] could also perform positive functions, albeit covertly."
A senior CIA official agrees: "We have to find new ways of getting our eyes and ears out there. "There may be a trade-off, however. Former CIA Director James Woolsey notes that "if you are trying to grow rapidly at the same time that you are trying to change the focus, from official cover to NOC, it is going to be hard to do both simultaneously."
This story appears in the February 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.