Greg Miller, at the LA Times, reports that a multi-hundred million dollar CIA program to create shell companies in agreeable European locations designed to supply non-official cover in the War on Terror has been concluded to have been ill-conceived, and all but two of the companies have been closed down. The leaked story indicates that the ultimate decision, which sounds sensible enough, was arrived at via the Agency’s customary processes of cat fighting and back biting.
But critics called the arrangement convoluted, and argued that whatever energy the agency was devoting to the creation of covers should be focused on platforms that could get U.S. spies close to their most important targets.
“How does a businessman contact a terrorist?” said a former CIA official involved in the decision to shut down the companies. “If you’re out there selling widgets, why are you walking around a mosque in Hamburg?”
Rather than random businesses, these officials said, the agency should be creating student aid organizations that work with Muslim students, or financial firms that associate with Arab investors.
Besides broad concerns about the approach, officials said there were other problems with the companies. Some questioned where they were located. One, for example, was set up in Portugal even though its principal targets were in North Africa.
The issue became so divisive that the agency’s then-director, Porter J. Goss, tapped the official then in charge of the CIA’s European division, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, to lead an in-house review of the NOC strategy.
Mowatt-Larssen sided with critics of the approach and began pulling the plug on the companies before he left the agency to take a senior intelligence post at the Department of Energy, officials said. Mowatt-Larssen declined to comment.
The agency is in the midst of rolling out a series of new platforms that are more narrowly targeted, officials said. The External Operations and Cover Division has been placed under Eric Pound, a veteran foreign officer who was CIA station chief in Athens during the 2004 Olympics.
But the agency is still struggling to overcome obstacles, including resistance from many of the agency’s station chiefs overseas, most of whom rose through the ranks under traditional cover assignments and regard the NOC program with suspicion and distrust.
In one recent case, officials said, the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia vetoed a plan to send a NOC officer who had spent years developing credentials in the nuclear field to an energy conference in Riyadh.
The NOC “had been invited to the conference, had seen a list of invitees and saw a target he had been trying to get to,” said a former CIA official familiar with the matter. “The boss said, ‘No, that’s why we have case officers here.’