Blowing the CIA’s cover

By MARTIN SCHRAM

A powerful and even patriotic scoop in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune set a time machine whirring, emitting a sound that fell somewhere between Walter Mitty’s ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa and Yogi Berra’s deja-vu-vu-vu (all over again).

This time it was the Tribune’s savvy senior correspondent John Crewdson who had come to the rescue of the Central Intelligence Agency (although some of the dimmer minds in the agency might not quite see it that way) by revealing a dangerous intelligence gap. In a March 12 investigative report, Crewdson revealed how America’s enemies, armed only with a computer hooked to the Internet, could do what he did: Break the cover of 2,653 CIA employees around the world, many of them secret agents. Headline: "Internet blows CIA cover."

Three decades ago it was a Newsday Washington bureau chief who did a similar thing, albeit on the far more primitive, low-tech scale that was, in its way, state of the art spookology for that Cold War era. In a June 6, 1974 semi-investigative (semi-luck) report, the Newsday journalist (who would come in from the cold some 32 years later to write this column) revealed how America’s enemy rogues and spies, armed only with no-tech eyes, ears and shoes, could do what he did: Break the cover of a secret CIA school for spies operating in a well-appointed downtown Washington apartment building. Headline: "CIA Spy School Blows Its Cover."

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. Dij` vu-vu-vu. Slowly, a pattern emerges. In fact, a pattern within a pattern. For in both cases, the journalist revealed to the CIA an intelligence gap within its midst that stunned and embarrassed the agency _ but provided the CIA with info it needed to try to recover its secrets, post haste. And in both cases, the Chicago Tribune and Newsday journalists opted to not publish the identities or other distinguishing characteristics of the CIA operatives whose covers had been blown.

The work of the Tribune’s Crewdson was truly impressive. He explained how he was able to use basic search engines and commercial online data services to discover the identities of CIA operatives, front companies and so on. He reported that CIA Director Porter Goss was said to be "horrified" at the discovery and that the agency was now moving swiftly (see also: belatedly) to plug its intelligence gap.

The Newsday scoop three decades earlier began, frankly, with a bit of luck. A friend who lived in an apartment building near K Street told the journalist he had noticed strange comings and goings concerning an apartment on his floor. Men in business suits would come in the morning, stay a few hours and leave. No one was there at night. It turned out that if you stand in the nearby laundry room, where walls are thin and laced with audio-friendly water pipes, you could her with bare ears what was said inside the apartment. "…KGB…" "…microdot…" Lectures about code word greetings.

One day, you could hear the teacher or trainer explain how the others can avoid being followed. Then the day’s class ended; as the 1974 Newsday article reported: "It is easy to follow the spies in training as they leave. They walk several blocks and enter another apartment building where they apparently feel very much at home. They emerge a short time later on a corner balcony several stories above the street and proceed to take in the afternoon sun. It is also easy to follow the trainer. He takes the elevator down to the basement garage and drives out in a blue sedan. The car has Virginia license plates and an Arlington, VA inspection sticker. A check of the sticker registration reveals the trainer’s true identity."

At first the CIA’s spokesman gave the standard we-never-comment. But when the reporter explained that won’t do because he had all the names and numbers _ adding, "if they are not ours, they are probably theirs." The CIA fessed up: "They are our guys. …It’s a training exercise. …This is all rather embarrassing."

Then the CIA man asked the Newsday man for help. The operatives will want to know how they screwed up and the agency has no answer. The reporter explained all about the comings and goings, the walls and water pipes.

That Cold War mini-scoop was small time tweakery. But the Tribune gave the CIA a life-saving gift: Disclosure of an Internet age intelligence gap that was both dangerous and discoverable.

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. Deja-vu-vu-vu. Sadly, the pattern is frighteningly clear. The most dangerous intelligence gap of all is the one that exists between the ears of the CIA officials whose job requires that they think it all through and prevent snafus that could someday cost agents their lives. Or compromise the safety of us all.

 

 

 

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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