Intelligence: December 13, 2004


The CIA is allowing agents to keep more of the money that they make in the cover jobs they take overseas. The CIA isnt providing many details about its renewed effort to expand its spy network. But one source of information is Congress, which passes laws regulating how much CIA employees can be paid. One recently changed law allowed agents working undercover to keep more of the money they were making from their cover job. For a long time, CIA agents would take legit jobs and use them as cover for their recruiting (of foreign spies) activities. Many of those jobs were well paying ones with multinational corporations. The agent actually had to do the job, but from their position as a legitimate American businessman overseas, they could meet a lot of locals, and find likely candidates for recruitment. Sometimes, they would turn the actual recruiting over to an agent working out of the local American embassy, to lessen the chance that the cover would be blown. 

There was one problem with all this. Agents would often stay at these jobs for years, and work their way up the corporate ladder. In many cases, the pay from their cover job was more than what they were getting from the CIA. Congress long ago cracked down on this kind of double dipping, and ruled that these undercover agents had to return to the government most of the pay in excess of their CIA salary and benefits. When some undercover agents began making far more than their CIA pay, they just quit the agency. 

Undercover agents have long been unhappy with the old law. Operating as an undercover agent was often like working two jobs, but they could only be paid their CIA salary. Moreover, the undercover agents often operated in more dangerous conditions than agents operating out of embassies (and possessing diplomatic immunity.) Until the war on terror made it clear that the United States did not have enough spies, this problem was pretty much ignored by Congress, and the CIA brass did not push the matter. But now they have, and Congress has changed the law. The new regulations are somewhat vague, in that they dont state how much more money the undercover agents can make. The CIA has to decide how much is enough, and that will probably land the issue back in Congress if agents are found to be making a lot more money in their cover jobs. Agents working for financial firms could be in jobs that pay large (multi-million dollar) bonuses.

Meanwhile, a lot of undercover agents work for companies set up with CIA money. Since the CIA is still the employer, exceptionally high pay packages are less of a problem. How many CIA people are operating undercover like this is, of course, a secret. But overseas, enough agents have been exposed to make many foreigners suspicious of American business people overseas. Of course, its not uncommon for many foreigners to eagerly seek employment with the CIA. These people do it for a variety of reasons; money, adventure or out of conviction (opposition to the local government). The hard part is bringing the candidates and recruiters together. But this sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, and the CIA passes on a lot of that experience to agents selected for undercover work. Recruiting can often be messy. A lot of the potential recruits are not nice people. For example, CIA recruiters in the Persian Gulf try to recruit people involved in terrorist activities. This often means cultivating people who are not terrorists, but have family or friends who are. Family and tribal connections are important in the Middle East, and just recruiting a spy in a family or clan is a big step forward. Spies like this will just report back family gossip about which cousin or uncle is involved in al Qaeda activities. 

Often, a lot of this information can be obtained simply by socializing with friends. American businessmen in the Persian Gulf, who speak Arabic and have an attractive personality, can gather a lot of information just by spending a lot of time with Arab business associates. But if you want to pry, you need someone working for you who knows what youre up to. And if you finally get to an actual terrorist, or terrorist supporter, who is willing to sign on, you are often dealing with someone with blood on their hands. Often, the best spies are criminals, who dont mind selling a little information on the side just for the money. Many dictatorships are kept going through the efforts of thousands of opportunists. These guys will take money for information. Sometimes the spies will demand favors as well, like green cards or business connections. 

When the CIA connection is revealed, as it sometimes is by reporters, Congress is not happy. While it is essential to pay thugs, criminals and terrorists in order to obtain information, the details of what these people do when they are not spying does not look pretty. While these spies are no different from the CIs (confidential informants) that police the world over recruit, the American Congress and media decided that unsavory CIA informants are bad, while domestic police informants are OK.

For the last thirty years, the CIA has bowed to Congressional and media pressure, and stayed away from hiring unsavory people as spies. No longer. While this will help in the pursuit of terrorists, expect to see a repeat of the past. Soon, there will be news stories of murders and terrorists on the CIA payroll. This time, however, the CIA may be able to make everyone understand that this is the way the world works. You cant catch terrorists without paying some of them to provide information.




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