Okay, James L. Pavitt. You've just been named deputy director for operations at the Central Intelligence Agency, which means you're the guy who runs the so-called "clandestine service." Although, given that an American spy just got busted in Moscow, maybe it's not as clandestine as you'd like.
You've put the highbrow European opera posters and African art up on the wall, installed a sleek glass desk and bought some art-deco furniture that's so spiffy even the director is teasing you.
But now all hell is breaking loose, with the arrest of a Russian intelligence operative who's been caught bugging the inner sanctum--a conference room on the seventh floor of the State Department, just down the hall from the secretary of state's office. It's an audacious operation, and a reminder that the real-life counterpart to Karla, the insidious spymaster of John Le Carre's novels, is back.
So what do you do about it, if you're the man who's responsible for running America's spy operations overseas? How do you build a spy service that can steal the secrets America needs, without getting caught in the act in Moscow?
"My job is to run the clandestine service clandestinely, so the U.S. hand doesn't show," observed Pavitt over a lunch of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and potato chips. The interview took place last Monday, just before the new spy scandal broke.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a striped rep tie, Pavitt, 53, could pass for one of the spies of the CIA's founder generation. (He actually went to the University of Missouri.) Joining the lunch was his deputy, Hugh Turner, who looks, in contrast to his boss, like the classic gray man of intelligence--the fellow you'd never notice at a cocktail party, who turns out to be the one who stole the silverware.
The hardest part of Pavitt's job is restoring morale at an agency that has, as the '60s book title put it, "Been down so long, it looks like up to me." Congress has given Pavitt and his colleagues more money to hire new spies--indeed, the agency would like to balloon back to its Cold War bulk of the mid-1980s.
But where should the CIA hide all these spies? That's a critical question for Pavitt. Should they be under "official cover"--posted abroad to U.S. embassies, trade missions and international organizations, where they'll have the protection of diplomatic immunity if they get caught spying? Or should more spies operate under "non-official cover"--as "NOCs," in the jargon of intelligence?
For more than 20 years, critics of the agency have been proposing the same remedy for the CIA's problems: More NOCs! Only these deep-cover officers, it's argued, can get close to the targets that really matter, such as terrorist groups in the Middle East, or rocket scientists in North Korea, or nuclear engineers in Iran.
Pavitt is skeptical about this NOC-o-mania. He'd like more NOCs, yes, but he and other CIA veterans argue that, in practice, they often create more problems than they solve. They're expensive (think of all the Mercedes automobiles and fancy apartments you need to keep up appearances as an international businessman). And for many spy activities--such as liaison with foreign intelligence services and receiving defectors who want to spill secrets--official cover is actually better.
Maintaining deep cover is complicated. It requires separate training and a separate NOC bureaucracy, which until recently was known by the prosaic name "Office of External Development."
Another knock on NOCs is that it's hard to persuade the chief executives of some big U.S. companies to shelter them. CEOs who agree to hide spies do so out of patriotism. But in a global economy, U.S.-based companies have foreign-born directors, managers and even CEOs. They increasingly think of themselves as citizens of the world, and providing cover for U.S. spies doesn't fit their global mission.
The best argument against relying on NOCs is that it's too risky, as evidenced by this month's spy scandals. Cheri Leberknight, the second secretary in Moscow who got arrested meeting with a Russian agent, would be languishing in a Russian jail if she'd been an NOC. Instead, she was free to leave the country. Similarly, Stanislav Borisovich Grusev, the Russian operative caught monitoring the bug at the State Department, will fly home in a few days, thanks to his status as a "diplomat."
So how did the Russians plant that bug in a piece of wood molding in the State Department conference room in the first place? That's the question spy buffs will be pondering this weekend. Was the listening device put there by a mole at State? By an agent recruited from the maintenance staff? By a covert carpenter far from the scene, who put the bugged molding in the hands of an unwitting installer?
Did the Russians, perhaps, run this operation under a false flag, convincing the person who installed the bug that he was working for a "friendly" nation, like Germany, or Israel, or Taiwan, or Japan? Did they use the Russian equivalent of a NOC?
As Pavitt ruminates on the Russian bugging this weekend, he probably has two main thoughts: I want my guys in the field to be as clever and aggressive in stealing secrets. And I hope they don't get caught.