Researching Undercover CIA Agents

Louis Wolf
August 1978
Originally prfaced with the following sentence: The following is an edited version of a speech given by Bulletin member Louis Wolf to several hundred delegates to the XI World Festival of Youth and Students, Havana, Cuba, August 1978.
CovertAction Information Bulletin (later called CovertAction Quarterly) featured a regular "Naming Names" column, outing CIA agents. The column ended in 1982 with the passage of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which made the practice of revealing the name of an undercover officer illegal under U.S. law. It might be smart to re-read that last sentence after you finish reading this essay.

We of the CoverAction Information Bulletin welcome the opportunity to spread the message to all the youth of the world that the CIA is not indomitable, that it can be defeated, and that its personnel are immediately politically vulnerable and their work is greatly weakened or made ineffective the more their identities are exposed, both in the country where they are stationed at the time of exposure, and around the world. Our guiding principle in this effort is simply that the activities of the CIA cannot be separated from the people who carry them out. It is people who murder, who bribe, who subvert.

You Cannot "Reform" the CIA

The question always comes up: Is it possible to reform the CIA? The answer of course is no. In spite of a Presidential order on "United States intelligence activities" issued on 24 January 1978, and the many bills now before Congress including S. 2525 (from which I quote), and the restrictions that these "reforms" place on the pursuit of covert activities (the proposed law calls them "special activities"), the gaps are immense. Even the supposed "prohibitions" reveal to the uninitiated the kinds of dirty work the CIA does:

"Sec. 135. (A) No special activity may be initiated or continued which has as its objective or is likely to result in—
(1) the support of international terrorist activities;
(2) the mass destruction of property;
(3) the creation of food or water shortages or flodds;
(4) the creation of epidemics of diseases;
(5) the use of chemical, biological, or other weapons in
violation of treaties or other international agreements to
which the United States is a party;
(6) the violent overthrow of the democratic government of any
(7) the torture of individuals; or
(8) the support of any action which violates human rights,
conducted by the police, foreign intelligence, or internal
security forces of any foreign country."

Reading on, we find a section titled "Participation in Illegal Activity," where grown men and women who are elected officials propose an odd "reform" measure:

"Sec. 243. No person acting on behalf of an entity of the intelligence community may instigate or commit any violation of the criminal statutes of the United States unless such activity is undertaken pursuant to procedures approved by the Attorney General, and—
(1) does not involve acts of violence;
(2) does not involve a violation of any other provision of
the Act; and
(3) is necessary to protect against acts of espionage,
sabotage, international terrorist activity, or

The Fine Print and the Loopholes

Reading the fine print in Carter's Executive Order, it becomes obvious that the Order permits Presidential burglary—break-ins (known in the intelligence trade as "surreptitious entries," but Carter renames then "unconsented physical searches"), "black bag jobs," wiretapping, bugging, and physical or electronic surveillance. While many of these activities are carried out in the U.S. by the FBI, it works closely with the CIA, particularly when the elastic catch-all known as "national security" is evoked. A deputy assistant attorney general, Robert Keuch, justifies this exception, saying" "The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. But we argue that searches are reasonable when conducted for foreign intelligence purposes and authorized by the President."

Yet, even as these glorious "reforms" are put forward by the President and on the floor of Congress, the spies-turned-lobbyists and CIA defenders of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), headed by David Phillips, chief of the Chile Task Force during the time of the Allende government, are feverishly campaigning against even these meagre measures, and they have the ear of many members of Congress and the Executive.

Aside from the everyday secrecy in which the activities of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies of the intelligence complex are shrouded, they take certain extra steps to cover themselves. The report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence spoke of how the FBI filed some of its most sensitive records under a "Do Not File" designation, to keep them out of the file folders with the subject titles of likely interest to Congress or when sought through the Freedom of Information Act by any given individual or organization. Likewise, the CIA claimed to have destroyed most of the records of its MK-ULTRA mind-control program, though reliable information suggests that all of these records are now on microfilm and hidden away deep in the caverns of Langley headquarters.

You might have heard of the American spy plane, the SR-71. This sophisticated aircraft files normally at an altitude of 70-80,000 feet and at over 2,300 miles per hour. Crammed full of computers and photographic apparati, and at this altitude and speed, this spy plane can read the labels of a pack of cigarettes on the ground. However, even with such equipment at its disposal, the CIA still requires humans—may of them—both to gather intelligence and to implement its multi-faceted covert operations.

It took people, not machines, to run the MK-ULTRA program. It was CIA people, not machines, who in 1953 considered buying 10 kilograms or $240,000 worth of LSD (the price has multiplied many times since then). It is still not known whether the purchase was actually made, but it would have been sufficient for about 100 million doses.

It also took people (with some help from machines) to open and photograph almost a quarter million first-class letters between 1953-73. And, despite their (and the FBI's) loud denials, the mail-opening continues.

One of the most sensitive areas of knowledge as far as the CIA is concerned is its budget. Flying in the face of demands by many individuals and organizations in the U.S., to say nothing of a growing number of members of Congress, the CIA has always managed to keep the amount of money which the American people must pay to keep it in business a tightly-held secret. There are reliable estimates for the yearly budget of the entire U.S. intelligence complex—approximately $8-12 billion, or about 10% of all accountable U.S. government spending. As for the people in this complex of some one dozen different agencies, there are about 175,000 of them on the payroll, plus all the contractors, informers, mercenaries, agents provacateur, etc. In the CIA, it is thought that there are approximately 30,000 employees, of which over 5,000 are the elite covert operations people.

As a result of the recent revelations about the activities and identities of CIA personnel, the CIA is grasping at straws to keep their people from being discovered. That they are worried is evidenced in many ways, including a recent comment leaked by the CIA to Newsweek about its cover arrangements: "We are dealing with our cover impediments by creating a truly clandestine corps of operations officers." It is clear that the wall of secrecy behind which the CIA has traditionally worked is crumbling. As Philip Agee points out:

"We know enough of what the CIA does to resolve to oppose it. What we should do now is to identify and expose each of the people who instrument and execute the CIA's programs. People failed to campaign effectively against the CIA in the past because the CIA programs and people were unknown. Now that impediment is being removed."

Inspired by the victories of revolutionary movements in Indochina, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau (and the list continues to grow), I have tried to develop some insights into a methodology of researching and exposing CIA personnel. Let me try to share with you some of the methodology that I have learned, not at any school or in any training course, but simply by doing it. And believe me, it is not difficult.

Department of State Cover

In 1948, the National Security Council gave the green light to the CIA to use the Department of State as the vehicle to provide it with the means of cover for its operations personnel overseas. Since then, several thousand CIA personnel have used this cover arrangement, posing as legitimate diplomats in U.S. embassies, consulates and missions around the globe.

The fact is, of course, that the CIA not only wants, but must have cover in this manner. First of all, diplomatic cover means for most of the high and middle-ranking CIA officers that they will be given diplomatic immunity by the host government. This is not only nice to have because it means they don't have to pay for parking tickets and the like. More important is that it gives them access to a wide range of diplomatic, social and political strata, which is key to their work of intelligence gathering, development of relations and possible recruitment of the people they encounter, and ability to move around somewhat more freely than if they were just "private" American citizens. In cases where a CIA officer is caught in a "flap" (an operation that is discovered or "blown" and maybe even gets into the local or international press), diplomatic immunity means just that: he or she is essentially immune from prosecution. In these cases, the individual more than likely will be on the first available flight out of the place.

The Major Resource Sources

There are in fact five major sources which have to be used, both individually and collectively, in researching and discovering CIA personnel who are operating or have in the past operated overseas under diplomatic cover. If one is interested in pursuing this research work, it is necessary to use some or all of these sources of information.

(1) The Diplomatic and Consular Lists—These are published regularly (1, 2, or 3 times a year) by the foreign affairs department or ministry of the host country. In most countries, it is also possible to get updated information of arrivals and departures or additions and subtractions from the list before the new list is actually printed, simply by phoning and asking for it (easier if the person phoning is a journalist accredited locally). Some of these lists include more of the American diplomats than others, and therefore more possible CIA personnel than others. On nearly all of these lists, at least the Chief of Station and one or two subordinates will be listed. Some lists even give addresses and phone numbers, which gives interested persons a way to phone them and ask for comments as to their status as CIA employees.

(2) U.S. embassy/consulate/mission/military installation personnel lists— These are regularly printed lists that are produced for internal use by the American and locally-hired personnel. You or a friend may know someone who happens to have a lower-level position at the particular U.S. establishment concerned. A discreet approach to such person (if you feel you can trust him sufficiently) for a copy of the list might prove successful; naturally, such person need not know the exact nature of your interest in the list, perhaps that you are interested in it for a better understanding of the "good work" they do in your country. There are always ways to obtain such lists, and you should also know that these lists are not classified or secret information. A close examination of this list or directory will give you a good idea of what is what. Look first in the offices or sections dealing with political, economic and consular affairs. Anyone with a rank of Counselor or Deputy Chief of Mission is almost definitely not CIA; such a title means that the the person wouldn't have either the time or the freedom to do CIA work on top of their other duties. As for Ambassadors, while there are always some who work closely and enthusiastically with the CIA Station, and in most cases at least, know much of what the Station is up to in the broad sense, most Ambassadors (particularly career appointees) resent the CIA's power and influence over the relationship between the country to which he is supposed to be the President's personal representative and the Department of State. Such internal competition between the State Department cover is very real.

Another giveaway in these lists is an office or division with a title that often jumps out of the page at you as being an unlikely function or activity, or which is sort of nebulous. Examples of this are Regional Reports Unit, Political Liaison Section, Office of the Special Assistant, American Information Analysis and Evaluation Group, etc. Etc. It will almost always turn out that these offices are the actual CIA Station's operations center at the particular diplomatic establishment in question.

In addition, and very important, there is the Station's communication office. Due to the fact that there are always CIA documents and meeting of its personnel, all CIA facilities are located separately (even if in the same building) from the facilities of the State Department. This is true of the special offices and divisions like those named above, and also of the communications facilities. The CIA never trusts its communications functions to the State Department communications people, but rather keeps its own channels and facilities, and these fall under the section or office known as "telecommunications." The telecommunications office will not only handle all CIA communications and records, but in some circumstances, may also process the State Department's "Top Secret" cables and communications from or to the White House. The result is that while the CIA can read all the State Department's incoming and outgoing cable traffic, the CIA does not reciprocate. State Department people nearly always resent the unequal nature of this situation, but there is little they can do to change it, and so the resultant inner rivalry is almost always a factor at American embassies.

(3) The Biographic Register—Many CIA people were integrated into their cover as cryptodiplomats in the 1950s and 1960s, and so when you pick up the State Department's publication, the Biographic Register, many of them are listed. The BR gives quite a lot of biographical data on the person including date and place of birth, education and degree, branch, rank and dates of military service, private employement, and government employment ("Government Experience").

The first tell-tale sign will usually appear in the Government Experience category. When the person is said to have worked with the Department of the Army/Navy/Air Force/Defense and with such job titles as "political officer," "analyst," "research analyst," "political affairs officer," "plans officer," "programs officer," "staff planning officer," and a few more to boot, you know immediately that is no ordinary member of the diplomatic corps, but is a live one. Why? Civilians in the above named military departments have almost never had such positions, so not only can you be sure that the person is CIA, but you also known when they joined the Agency and the length of their initial training.

There are three main foreign service rating and grade groups. "O" = Foreign Service Officer; "R" = Foreign Service Reserve Officer; "S" = Foreign Service Staff Officer. In 1974, when former State Department intelligence officer John Marks first wrote his now-famous article "How to Spot a Spook," which broke the first ground in the development of this research methodology, he told how the State Department had always refused to give "O" status to CIA personnel under diplomatic cover. The reason has been that this is a category for career foreign service personnel, and State never wants to give such status to CIA personnel who may or may not be around in a few months or years, depending upon the whims of the Agency and whether the person is caught in a "flap" of some kind. With "R" and "S" personnel, the State Department can separate them without too much bureaucratic problem. This leaves the "R" or "S" personnel, the State Department people; such as secretarial, communications/records and consular representatives who will have "R" or "S" ratings, CIA personnel under diplomatic cover at least through 1974, will only have these ratings (one or the other). Moreover, as Marks pointed out, CIA people, much more than genuine State Department personnel, tend to switch from "R" to "S" or vice versa and back again. However, it must be stressed that since the publication of Marks' article, it is possible that the State Department has relented in its control over the "O" rating.

(4) The Foreign Service List—Like the Biographic Register, the FSL was printed by the Department of State, at least until the CIA forced the State Department to cease publication because of its utility in uncovering CIA personnel. (Stocks of these publications were in the warehouse of the State Department and the Government Printing Office were even ordered to be destroyed—somewhat similar to the book-burnings in wartime Germany and in Chile at the time of the overthrow of Allende.) The last issue appeared in August 1975, while the last publicly available BR was published in 1974. The FSL gave a pretty fair listing of the straight and not-so-straight diplomats and administrative personnel at embassies and consulates and missions in every country in the world with which the U.S. had diplomatic relations, with their job title, grade, and date of arrival. (Back issues of the BR and FSL are found at depository libraries, and many city or university libraries.)

(5) The last main source of information about the CIA presence in a country is the press. While there will be relatively few stories that reveal in so many words a CIA operation or officer (we hope this will become more of a trend in the future), there are other indicators that are easily recognizable. For example, when a country is suffering from severe inflation, unemployment, underdevelopment and an unequal class structure, there is a very strong likelihood that the CIA will be on the scene to exploit the situation, to create pro- or anti-government propaganda (as the case may be), to back its friends, and to discredit or destroy its enemies with various dirty tricks. Signs of these activities are apparent to the knowledgeable citizen, and particularly if one has a friend in the media or is a media person, it is possible to have some additional access to information that when put together with knowledge about who is who in the local CIA station, gives a pretty good picture of Station operations.

Non-official Cover

One way the CIA is trying to keep its overseas operations personnel from being discovered is by putting them under what is known as "non-offical cover." This can be as pseudo business men or women in an American corporation with operations in the country, as missionaries, as professors or academic researchers, as tourists, etc. This can also include employment with a totally-owned CIA company—known as a proprietary. These people are much more difficult to trace, but every now and then they cross paths with one of the operations personnel under "official cover." There are also intense pressures being brought on Congress by the intelligence establishment to open other government departments to them to use regularly for cover, such as the International Communications Agency (formerly the U.S. Information Agency), Agency for International Development, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and even, once again, the Peace Corps. Whether these forces will get their way with Congress, which must give at least broad approval to such changes, remains to be seen.

What To Do

Once you have researched the embassy personnel (and where appropriate the personnel at a local U.S. military installation, where some CIA personnel are likely to have covers), as well as the other assorted Americans whose presence and activities are out of the ordinary feel free to check them with us, or with others in other countries who have been working in the same field of research. If you can do so without revealing yourself to the CIA people, keep them under surveillance, take note of their movements, whom they meet with among the local population, etc. Try to get a photograph of the person.

If you feel certain that the person is CIA, based on your research (don't make the mistake of thinking all Americans at an embassy or other installation are CIA), then it is time to publish and expose their identities and, where known, their activities.

Remember, CIA personnel (whether under cover in a foreign country or at home behind a desk at headquarters in Langley) depend very heavily on the maintenance of secrecy as to who they are and what they actually do for a living. Once they are exposed, life in general and work specifically become very difficult. If their access to people and to officials of the country is cut off, their work soon dries up. If they then leave, they will probably be transferred elsewhere and replaced, and so the research process must begin again.

Good luck!

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