The Art of Cover - II
THE LONE AGENT, OPERATING UNDER A PERSONAL COVER, à la E. Phillips Oppenheim, is certainly not extinct, but he is fast becoming an anachronism. In a world of organization men, the best cover for an agent is to be an organization man. The adventurous explorer has been converted into an executive of a large travel agency; the writer in quest of stories and colour has been replaced by the administrative director of a large private educational mission abroad; the independently wealthy expatriate with friends in high places everywhere has become the vice-president of a great corporation; and - alas! - Mata Hari works from nine to five as a research assistant on the staff of a mass circulation magazine.
This melancholy development is known as organizational cover. At the very outset of developing organizational cover a vital decision must be made. This is whether or not the use of the organization as cover will be revealed to one or more responsible officers of the organization itself. General practice is to try to sanction the arrangement wherever possible. This is a practical matter, since an agent bound by the full-time work requirements of an American company is pretty well hamstrung in his ability to do anything else. It also is preventive medicine against possible future embarrassment, of a type I know from experience.
After a particularly gruelling two-year stint, I arranged to take a brief respite in the form of an overt and "legitimate" six months' job in an eminently "legitimate" Government office in Europe. My chief took an instant dislike to me since, as I eventually discovered, he suspected that I was there to engage in skullduggery beyond his control, and most likely to report on him. With patient effort and some show of frankness, I finally began to ease his suspicions, and life became a little more restful. At this moment, unfortunately, my successor in my previous operation ran into some trouble which he felt warranted a message to me. In it came, addressed to me via my chief, but in a code which he could not break. The temperature in his office as he handed me the telegram made me think I was picking up my mail in the deep freeze. I apologized, went to my office, deciphered the message, composed a reply, including the request that I be left alone, enciphered it, and then returned to the deep freeze to ask that he transmit the reply. I explained what had happened, without going into detail, reassured him as best I could, guaranteed it wouldn't happen again, and finally felt that he was mollified. Even more unfortunately, my restful life had softened my brain, so that, while I deciphered well enough, I had forgotten how to encipher. My message was unreadable at the other end. Back came another message, by the same channels as the first. Protesting my innocence, I knew what George Washington would feel like if, returning to life and remembering that he hadn't chopped down the cherry tree, he had to read American history books. As I was innocent, nothing was lost but my brief respite. However, much could be lost by an agent at a crucial point in his operations whose unwelcome true status was uncovered by his superiors in the organization. And their feeling of having been tricked would be fairly sure to make his true status unwelcome.
Most organizations take a co-operative and responsible view of these activities. However, there are some which, either because of the nature of their work, or their vulnerability to charges of providing organizational cover, or simply because they do not agree with covert operations in principle, will not sanction such arrangements.
The Russians have serious problems of their own in this field. Since almost all activity in the Soviet Union, and certainly all Soviet foreign activity, is organized and directed by the State, no Soviet agency can provide plausible organizational cover. Consequently, they most often use foreign organizations, obviously without sanction. It is this which explains their inability to resist the temptation offered by the U.N. as cover for some of their agents.
Cover is by no means confined to the problems of individual agents, or of espionage operations, or to the concoction of stories to explain mishaps. More effort is probably expended today - at least by the Soviet Union and the United States - on cover organizations than on single agent cover. Cover organizations - let the reader beware - are not to be confused with organizational cover.
In contrast to organizational cover, which uses legitimate agencies for cover purposes, cover organizations exist solely for the purpose of providing cover. They are an enabling and protective device, usually for large-scale operations. Their great advantage lies in the fact that, once established, no further cover for the individual agents who make up the organization is necessary. In fact, a great many people who need not even know that they are functioning as agents can be brought into an operation. The purpose is simply to set in motion, under ostensibly independent auspices, activities for which the government does not wish to avow responsibility. It is not, therefore, the activities themselves which are covered, but only the link between them and the government.
Cover organizations are usually an expensive matter. Furthermore, they are, for the most part, suited only to political or paramilitary operations, and not to espionage. Consequently, they are usually reserved for activities which are direct expressions of a government's foreign policy. They are infinitely more complicated than the Israeli Government's feeble attempt in 1960 to disguise a nuclear energy establishment by the simple statement that it was a textile plant.
Cover organizations are no new device. Americans can reflect on the historical fact that American independence is in large measure due to French ingenuity and success with one cover organization. In 1777 Louis XVI was persuaded by his ministers that it should be French policy to support the fight of the American colonists for independence from Great Britain. The French Government, however, was not yet prepared to put such a policy into effect openly. While La Fayette and scores of other young French officers, volunteered for service with the Continental Army, this was by no means the type of significant aid that was needed, or that the French Government contemplated.
The answer was found in the person of Pierre Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais, poet and playwright, author of Figaro, and a man well known for his espousal of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Beaumarchais, a wealthy man, was granted letters patent to found a private trading firm in Paris, under the name of Hortalez and Company. This firm promptly entered exclusively and actively into the promotion of North American trade. It was well equipped for the purpose by the presence among the principals of Silas Deane - whose qualifications, besides being an American, were that he was an agent of the Continental Congress. The doors of the French Treasury and of the French arsenals were quietly opened to Hortalez and Company, and the firm forwarded on to America vast and decisive quantities of arms, munitions, textiles - and money. Among many other things, these supplies included nine-tenths of the arms and munitions used by the Americans at the Battle of Saratoga. (It is sad to be obliged to add that Beaumarchais, who was himself out of pocket for considerable expenses, was eventually forced to protracted litigation to recover these sums. The case was only solved in 1835, when the American Congress finally reimbursed his heirs.)
The range of cover organizations is vast. They embrace activities in every corner of the globe - save for that cold exception to the Cold War, Antarctica. They exist in all fields of international life; political movements, youth organizations, religious groups, the arts, publishing, education, labour, professional societies of all kinds, banks, foundations and friendship societies. Some are very large organizations, playing a genuine role in their particular fields. Others are merely support agencies, usually for funding purposes; people everywhere are interested in money, where it comes from and how much, to the extent that the transmission and provision of funds is one of the most difficult aspects of covert operations. Some are, by now, long-established, permanent features of the international scene. Others come into existence for a specific, limited purpose and are disbanded when their function is accomplished.
Some are highly successful in their maintenance of cover and indistinguishable from genuine institutions; others carry with them an aura of falsity. One significant feature of the present situation is that this aura of falsity does not affect the value of the organization; even the opposition accepts the legend of the cover since it accords with their interests. One very large American cover organization, in existence for some years now, is well known by everyone in its field to be a Government operation, even though it cannot be proved. Nevertheless, on the Western side this is accepted and the cover honoured because it serves a useful co-ordinating function, and it is accepted on the Soviet side because it is recognized as a major Western gambit, for the abandonment of which a price will have to be paid. The problem on both sides is how much.
A general acceptance of transparency in cover organisations is a fair indication of international tension, and of a situation of crisis. During the Greek Civil War I journeyed to Lake Prespa, a large body of water in the middle of which the Greek, Albanian and Yugoslav borders intersect. At that particular moment in history the Yugoslavs were still aiding the Greek Communists, as were the Albanians, but the Yugoslavs and Albanians were on bad terms, due to the Tito-Stalin rupture, and the Greeks, except for the Communists, were obviously hostile to both the Yugoslavs and the Albanians. In addition, there was considerable intrigue among the Greek Communist rebels, as pro-Yugoslav and pro-Cominform agents sought to sway them in that dispute.
By day the Lake was an idyll of mountain beauty. The still waters lay undisturbed, and the mountains rose blue and brown in the hazy sunlight. Nothing moved. But when darkness fell, hell broke loose.
From the north shore of the Lake the put-put of a Yugoslav boat heading for Greece or Albania could be heard; and then from the western Albanian shore more boats would put out, and, finally, traffic of all factions would embark from the Greek southern shore. A machine gun would open up, rifle fire crackled all around the lake and on the waters. Tracers would tell the direction of fire, but not who was firing at whom. An occasional flare would give just enough light to distinguish a boat, but nothing about its occupants. A respite meant everybody was landing successfully, but it would be followed by even more vigorous boating and shooting. Lake Prespa was the Grand Central Station of secret agent movements of south-eastern Europe. The trouble was that all the commuters were armed and had nervous trigger fingers. Into this muddle of peace and war the British covert services had sent a mission, to check on the traffic, and perhaps do a little commuting of their own. For some obscure reason of propriety, London had decided to cover the mission as being a British Consulate at a town near, but not on, the Lake. For me to proceed further on my journey it was necessary for me to have my passport stamped by the Consulate. I waited one entire day, and never saw a soul. On the second day, late in the afternoon, the "Consular" staff came in to replenish their ammunition. Roaring up in a jeep, as fine a "Consular" group of fighting men as I have ever seen entered the Consulate, armed to the teeth. When I explained my need, the "Consul' looked blank. "Jarvis," he called out. "Where's that blasted Consulate seal? I saw it a couple of weeks ago." Jarvis, chewing on some tinned beef, went to a corner piled high with heavy wooden cases. "In with the Sten ammo, I think," he muttered.
When I had my passport duly stamped, and had brushed Jarvis's corned beef out of it, I congratulated the "Consul" on his cover. "Hahi" he said. "We haven't got time for that in this show. They'd have done better to make this a branch Naval Attaché's office, and send us a gunboat - with searchlights." With that, he and his "Consular" staff were off to the Lake for a night's work. The "Consul" was right. The secret war had become a shooting war, and nobody really cared about his cover. Nevertheless, this indifference to cover can only be indulged in by the West in times and areas of gravest crisis. It is one of the seeming inequities of the secret war today that, in general, world public opinion does not permit such transparency in Western political cover organization while it is often indifferent to such transparency in Soviet political cover arrangements.
To many this indifference to the unmasking of Soviet political cover, this seeming inequity in judging Soviet and American actions, is an affront. At best they regard it as the mark of deceived or misguided minds, or Communist dupes. To be sure, this is sometimes the case. But I personally believe, on the basis of not inconsiderable experience, that this is a very defeatist view of our situation. If it is true that, for example, the millions of supporters of the Communist Peace Campaign were all, or even a majority, Communist dupes, or that everyone who agitates against nuclear testing or nuclear warfare is a Communist dupe, then we may as well throw in the towel throughout the rest of the world. The dupes have us badly outnumbered.
But I do not believe that is the case. The Peace Campaign was launched initially, in 1948, as a Soviet cover organization aimed at reinforcing Soviet policy concerning Western defence. The U.S. Government reacted with statement after statement showing conclusively that this was a Soviet initiative, in support of Soviet foreign policy. The technique didn't work. The Campaign succeeded beyond the Russians' fondest hopes, even to the extent that years later, when they intervened in Hungary, they had to pay a high price in loss of prestige with the very people they had won in the Campaign. In brief, people were indifferent to the unmasking of the Peace Campaign as a Soviet initiative. I do not believe it was because they were dupes; I believe it was because people - in this specific issue - liked what was offered. In large areas of the world the mere word Communist did not - and does not today - automatically close people's minds to the subject-matter. The fundamental question is: What is being offered? And because we failed to understand this, we were outmanoeuvered on this occasion.
Very well, it will be said, but then why are we, the Americans, required at the same time to be so careful about our cover? To my mind, the answer is a double one. For the first part, it is simply that if we come up with as good an idea as the Peace Campaign we won't have to worry too much about our cover. The second part is what I believe to be the fact that more people than we realize judge the Soviet Union and the West, particularly the United States, on our own estimates of ourselves. The Soviets do not pretend to a distinction between public and private initiative in foreign affairs. People accept this and ask only: What is being offered? But the West claims there are, or should be, large areas of private initiative, including foreign relations in the broadest sense, in a well-ordered society. People assume we practice what we preach. More sophisticated opinion, aware of our problems and needs, realizes we cannot always, in this period of conflict, do so. Naive opinion censures us for the unmasking of our cover; more sophisticated opinion merely expects our cover arrangements, by and large, to hold up. In short, we are not being unfairly penalized in the secret war; we are merely paying a price for what we say we believe in.
It is possible that political cover organizations are more numerous today on the Western than on the Soviet side. This is not to be taken as an indication of greater skullduggery on our part. On the contrary, the proliferation of such organizations in the West is a measure of the intensity of the secret war and of Soviet aggression. It is, encouragingly, a barometer of our response in that conflict.
Some observers hold that, from the point of view of international relations, the Soviet Government, and its imitators, are a cover for the Russian Communist Party-whose name, Vsesoyuznaya Kommunisticheskaya Partiya (Bolshevikov), All-Union Communist Party (of Bolsheviks), contains nothing except the language labelling it as Russian. From the viewpoint of cover experts, the purpose of this cover is not secrecy; it is to obtain international privileges, immunities, and powers to which a political party has never before been entitled. In other words, it launches on the international scene, as the equal of governments, what was a domestic political party. Political parties are instruments for advancing particular viewpoints on the organization of society. A government which is merely a cover for a political party is, in its international relations, moved to interfere in its neighbours' form of organization of their societies. This is the ideological war.
In nations with more than a single political party, it is only the duly elected government which can act nationally and internationally. Consequently, the rallying of democratic public opinion to action short of war is a difficult process. It can really be accomplished today, on the necessary scale, only by government. Furthermore, in a world of acute tension, private organizations cannot be permitted to undertake international actions which affect the relations between states and the balance of power. Such actions must be reserved to governments. However, many such actions, particularly political, would lose their effectiveness internationally if it was known that the action was sponsored and directed by a foreign government. Or, the action might, if undertaken overtly by the government, risk bringing into play opposing forces which would either defeat the action or seriously alter the international political balance. For the West, the answer to this dilemma is the cover organization. It is a means for organizing and utilizing valuable but diverse public opinion in the common national or international interest.
Once this problem is understood, the necessity and usefulness to the West of the cover organization becomes clear. It can also be seen that the West is better equipped in this game, by reason of its greater variety of views and interests, than the Soviet Union. However, this is not necessarily comforting news. For, whatever their problems with organizational cover and with cover organizations, the Russians suffer no impairment of their ability to exploit another important and common variety of cover for political operations - the front organization.
The differences between cover and front organizations are the subject of some argument among professionals. Cover experts agree that differences exist, but they are often blurred in practice. Many organizations contain features of both, and some cover organizations grow into fronts, and vice versa. Briefly, however, a front organization goes a step or two beyond a cover organization in complexity. Whereas a cover organization exists to mask government involvement in an activity, a front organization hides not only the government involvement, but also the true purpose of that involvement.
Let us suppose that it was suddenly reported from Antarctica that penguins can talk - Penguinese, an ancient Romance language - and have certain plans of their own for the continent. A delegation of Penguins would be seated in the U.N., and the powers interested in Antarctica would agree that, pending further discussion and negotiation with the Penguins, the present treaty renouncing national territorial claims on Antarctica would continue to be honoured.
The first thing that would happen would be the simultaneous establishment of (1) a Soviet-Penguin Friendship Society Antarctic Branch headed by four Penguin Communists secretly trained at the Soviet South Polar station at Mirny; (2) the Royal Society of Penguin Lovers - Honorary President, Lady Florabella Ffinch-Hyde, noted linguist and bird-watcher; (3) The Penguin Educational and Development Corporation - a private, nonprofit New York corporation headed by a retired Admiral who commanded the last four expeditions to Antarctica; and (4) La Soci&ecacute;té Francaise pour la Diffusion de la Culture parmi les Oiseaux Parlants - Monsieur le President, Guy Pamplemousse, former Socialist Governor-General of Indochina and myna bird collector. All cover organizations.
When interest in Antarctica was at its height, the cover organizations were stumbling over each other's missions to the Penguins, and a summit conference had agreed to keep the Cold War out of Antarctica, a Uruguayan named Schmidt would suddenly issue a call for the founding of an International Union of Antarctica Veterans (I.U.A.V.) - purposes: pensions for Antarctic veterans, the exchange of reminiscences among Antarctic veterans, and the provision to the public of factually objective information about Antarctica. The organization would be formed, and at its first Annual Congress, held in Tahiti, the Union would send greetings to its Penguin friends, call on the U.N. to demand pensions for the membership, and authorize the publication in Greek, Tamil, Swahili and Guarani of fourteen booklets on life in Antarctica. At the second Annual Congress, held in Accra, Ghana, Schmidt, by now permanent Secretary-General, would point out that no pensions had yet been granted, but that the booklets had sold like hot cakes, and he therefore proposed to distribute a dividend to the membership. Proposal warmly accepted, and Schmidt's suggested resolution on keeping the Cold War out of Antarctica passed unanimously. Fifty-eight additional booklets authorized, this time, Urdu, Tibetan and Gaelic being added to the list of languages.
At the third Annual Congress, held in an oasis in Baluchistan, Schmidt would deliver a ringing speech about pensions, noting that the membership was pretty seedily dressed this time - except for the members from the Soviet Union and the People's Democracies. Sitting down without comment on how the year's booklets had gone, or any mention of a dividend, he would be succeeded as speaker by a Norwegian whaler who had only learned to read the year before by setting type on the booklets. Consequently, he would read his address in broadly-accented Swahili, to the gratification of various African members. Translation would show that it was a fiery resolution condemning United States imperialism in Antarctica. Before the resolution could be brought to a vote, Schmidt would deliver a report on the year's activities, showing booklet sales at an all-time high, and announce a dividend, payable at the close of the Congress. The resolution, strengthened from the floor, would then pass by a large majority - and be headline news all over the world the next day. A Penguinese edition of Pravda, carrying the resolution on page 1, would be distributed free by the Soviet-Penguin Friendship Society in Antarctica.
Only the New York Times would report - besides the resolution on page 4 - the interesting information, on page 97, that the American membership, and most of the British and French members, had walked out of the Union and, borrowing their bus fare home, had established the Free International Union of Veterans of the Antarctica (F.I.U.V.A.), with headquarters in Arkansas. It would also carry the new organization's announcement that investigation showed that Schmidt, although a Uruguayan, had a Swiss grandmother who had been Lenin's laundress in Zurich in 1912. Furthermore, except for eight library sales, and three private purchases of the Greek editions, all of the booklets, to the tune of 1,480,000 copies, had been purchased by Soveximport and used as fill in the Aswan High Dam. F.I.U.V.A.'s announcement would also charge that I.U.A.V. was a Soviet front organization. They would be right.
This story - which, except for the Penguins, is by no means as ridiculous as it sounds - illustrates an important difference between cover organizations and front organizations. In a cover organization most of the responsible personnel are aware of the true nature of the organization - of the link to government which is being hidden. In a front organization there may be relatively few of the leading personnel who know; their link to government is hidden - frequently by personal cover - and their true mission is carried out behind the front of the organization's ordinary functions, and behind the front provided by the unwitting personnel.
To some persons all of this has an unsettling ring to it. I know of directors of cover organizations who have resigned on learning officially that they were serving a government-financed and directed group, even though, on accepting appointment, they heartily approved the organization's aims and activities. With all due respect for the scruples and principles which have moved such people, I personally believe that their viewpoint is outmoded by events and by urgent needs. I myself join in their longing and nostalgia for the private initiative, independence and spontaneity of the nineteenth-century ideal. But after all, that same ideal, in allegedly more halcyon days, encompassed the Panamanian Revolution which produced both Panama and the Panama Canal, and for which the United States Congress ultimately paid an indemnity of $8,000,000 to Colombia, the Revolution having been managed by the New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell under a fee from the U.S. Government - then without a C.I.A.
We live in a period of sharp conflict in which, for the moment, the driving forces are two great centres of power. Both powers proclaim their desire to avoid open conflict of the kind which would call into play the ultimate weapons; but they also for the moment feel obliged to continue steps to maintain or gain overt military advantage. Steps of this sort such as nuclear testing are bad enough, but they are hostile only implicitly and by indirection. A step such as the Soviets' 1962 attempt to station their missiles in Cuba, however, was an act of overt, direct hostility; it could barely be dignified as even clandestine, and that only to the point of a rashness which suddenly faced humanity with destruction. It is this kind of direct and overtly hostile confrontation of the powers, whether in Cuba, at Berlin, or elsewhere, which covert operations - competently conducted, of course - are historically designed to avoid. To this extent - and in more than one sense - we might all pray for more and better cover.