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Web blows CIA agents' cover
WASHINGTON — She is 52, married, grew up in the Kansas City, Mo., suburbs and lives in Virginia, in a new three-bedroom house.
Anyone who can qualify for a subscription to an online service that compiles public information also can learn that she is a CIA employee who, in the past decade, has been assigned to several U.S. embassies in Europe.
The CIA asked the Chicago Tribune not to publish her name because she is a covert operative, and the newspaper agreed. But unknown to the CIA, her affiliation and those of hundreds of men and women like her have become a matter of public record, thanks to the Internet.
When the Tribune searched a commercial online-data service, the result was a virtual directory of more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal agency telephone numbers and the locations of about 24 secret CIA facilities around the United States.
Only recently has the CIA recognized that in the Internet Age, its traditional system of providing cover for clandestine employees working overseas is fraught with holes, a discovery said to have "horrified" CIA Director Porter Goss.
"Cover is a complex issue that is more complex in the Internet Age," said the CIA's chief spokeswoman, Jennifer Dyck. "There are things that worked previously that no longer work. Director Goss is committed to modernizing the way the agency does cover in order to protect our officers who are doing dangerous work."
Several "front companies" set up to provide cover for CIA operatives and its small fleet of aircraft recently began disappearing from the Internet, after disclosures that some planes were used to transport suspected terrorists to countries where they claimed to have been tortured.
Although finding and repairing the vulnerabilities in the CIA's cover system was not a priority under Goss' predecessor, George Tenet, one senior U.S. official observed that "the Internet Age didn't get here in 2004," the year Goss took over at the CIA.
In the public domain
The Tribune is not disclosing the identities of any of the CIA employees uncovered in its database searches, the searching techniques used or other details that might put agency employees or operatives at risk. The CIA apparently was unaware of the extent to which its employees were in the public domain until being provided with a partial list of names by the Tribune.
Not all of the 2,653 employees whose names were produced by the Tribune search are supposed to be working under cover. More than 160 are intelligence analysts, an occupation not considered a covert position, and senior CIA executives such as Tenet are included on the list.
But an undisclosed number on the list — the CIA would not say how many — are covert employees, and some are known to hold jobs that could make them terrorist targets.
Other potential targets include at least some of the 24 CIA facilities uncovered by the Tribune search. Most are in northern Virginia, within a few miles of the agency's headquarters. Several are in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington state. There is one in Chicago.
A senior U.S. official, reacting to the searches that produced the names and addresses, said, "I don't know whether al-Qaida could do this, but the Chinese could."
For decades the CIA's training facility at Camp Peary, Va., remained the deepest of secrets. Even after former CIA personnel confirmed its existence in the 1980s the agency never acknowledged the facility publicly, and CIA personnel persisted in referring to it as "The Farm."
But an online search for "Camp Peary" produced the names and other details of 26 individuals who according to the data are employed there. Searching aviation databases for flights landing or taking off from Camp Peary's small airstrip revealed 17 aircraft whose ownership and flight histories could also be traced.
Although the Tribune's initial search for "Central Intelligence Agency" employees turned up only work-related addresses and phone numbers, other Internet-based services provide, often for a fee, the home addresses and telephone numbers of U.S. residents, as well as satellite photographs of where they live and work.
Asked how so many personal details of CIA employees had found their way into the public domain, the senior U.S. intelligence official said, "I don't have a great explanation, quite frankly."
The official noted, however, that the CIA's credo has always been that "individuals are the first person responsible for their cover. If they can't keep their cover, then it's hard for anyone else to keep it."
War on terrorism
And yet, experts say, covert operatives who pose as something other than diplomats are becoming increasingly important in the global war on terrorism.
"In certain areas you just can't collect the kind of information you need in the 21st century by working out of the embassy. They're just not going to meet the kind of people they need to meet," said Melvin Goodman, who worked as a senior Soviet affairs analyst at the CIA for more than 20 years.
The problem, Goodman said, is that transforming a CIA officer who has worked under "diplomatic cover" into a "nonofficial cover" operator, or NOC — as was attempted with Plame — creates vulnerabilities that are not difficult to spot later on.
The CIA's challenge, in Goodman's view, is, "How do you establish a cover for them in a day and age when you can Google a name ... and find out all sorts of holes?"
Chicago Tribune researcher Brenda J. Kilianski contributed to this report from Chicago.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company