A Primer On US Intelligence Vocabulary for the Press

Today the Inglorious Amateurs is honored to present our newest contributor: Doug Patteson is a former Case Officer within the National Clandestine Service. He served for a decade on multiple tours overseas against a wide range of targets. Since leaving, he has spent the last several years helping multinational business with finance and strategy.

In the wake of all the Snowden reporting, stories about the White House naming of the Kabul Chief of Station and other recent articles, many of us active or former intelligence folks have become increasingly annoyed by sloppy reporting and vocabulary by the press. So herewith follows a simple primer on the vocabulary of the intelligence world.

Let’s start with what makes most CIA officers furious – when the press refers to us as “spies”, “operatives” or “agents”. While those titles sound sexy, at the CIA, we don’t have spies, we have Operations Officers, sometimes referred to as Case Officers, Intelligence Officers  or Core Collectors, whose job is to clandestinely spot, assess, develop, recruit and handle individuals with access to foreign intelligence. They are not spies themselves, although popular culture would like to portray otherwise.

The individuals that Case Officers recruit would more accurately be referred to as spies, although most intelligence professionals would not use that terminology. We would refer to them as assets, agents, or sources far more readily. They are, in a sense, employed by an intelligence agency, although indirectly. Their motivations though may vary widely, and some may not accept compensation for what they do.

In either case, Ed Snowden was not a spy, nor trained as a spy, as he claimed. Well, at least not by the US government. It's possible he received some training from a foreign service if he was recruited by one. But time will tell.

The Intelligence Community is comprised of 17 separate organizations, each operating under their own directive but subordinate to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Member organizations include the Program Managers: CIA, DIA, FBI, NRO, NSA and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; the Departmental intelligence functions of :  DOE, DHS, State, Treasury and DEA, and the Uniformed Services intelligence functions of the USCG, USN, USAF, USMC, and US Army.

The INTs (HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, OSINT) are shorthand notation for the multiple intelligence disciplines. These four are the major ones, though there are others. HUMINT is the collection of intelligence through human means. SIGINT is the collection of intelligence through primarily electronic means. IMINT is the collection of intelligence through the analysis of imagery. OSINT is the collection of intelligence through analysis of Open Source information.

Station and Chief of Station – A Station is a base of operations for intelligence collection, typically overseas and geographically focused, although there have been instances of station having subject matter focus. The head of Station is known as the Chief of Station, or COS. The COS is responsible for all intelligence activity oversight taking place in the area of his/her geographic responsibility. He or she reports to both Langley and the Ambassador.

Covert vs. Overt – Pretty simple distinction really. Covert means, under cover, protected as secret, not public knowledge. While overt means the opposite, known publicly etc. Most members of the intelligence community are overt employees. They can say where they work (they may choose not to though, there is rarely a requirement that they do so). Far fewer are those whose roles are actually covert. For those who are covert, protection of that status is vital to their ability to do their job. The recent identification of multiple station chiefs illustrated this. By publicly declaring their affiliation with the Agency, their safety was jeopardized, as was their ability to function. Additionally, and rather sadly, such an outing of their cover also jeopardizes the many people they have relationships with, often relationships that have no intelligence value but are merely friendships or acquaintances.

Declared – A declared officer is an officer who is typically in a covert role, but whose identity is declared to host nation government officials. Officers involved in training host nation officials for example, would be declared to those officials.

Burned or blown – when an Agent, Operation or Officer’s identity or purpose is compromised or inappropriately identified publicly. See above reference to recent public outings of station chiefs in South Asia.

Tradecraft encompasses the techniques used in modern espionage. It includes the range of skills and technical tools needed to engage in intelligence work clandestinely.

Cover is the perceived action, occupation or purpose of an agent, Case Officer or intelligence program. It provides an explanation to any observer of the agent, Officer or program and must fit logically with and be supported by the background of same.

Bona fides are the proof of an officer or agent’s identity. Frankly, anyone claiming to be a current or former member of the Intelligence community should also have to provide their bona fides to support their claim.

Pocket Litter is collateral paperwork designed to support a normal cover story. Open your wallet or purse. Those items tell a story about who you are. Likewise similar items are needed to help support a cover story.

A Covert Action is a program designed to influence or affect the affairs of a foreign nation or nations. Such program required detailed planning and funding, and must individually be approved by the US government.

Black operation – a clandestine activity or operation that is not attributable or identifiable to the organization performing it. Public perception would have you believe these take place all the time. The reality is sadly less exciting. These are difficult, expensive and rare operations that require very high levels of approvals and oversight within the government. They just don’t happen that often.

Dead Drops are used as static locations for passing of intel or materiel. They allow the agent and his/her handler to securely exchange items without being seen together.

A Dangle is a potential highly attractive asset "dangled" in front of an intelligence service as a recruitment prospect.

A Double Agent Is a recruited agent or asset who actually continues to work clandestinely for their own or another intelligence service, with your recruitment if them having been their goal for the purpose of feeding false information or gathering intelligence.

Sleeper Agents are trained assets deployed by a foreign intelligence service who wait until being activated at a specific time or place. See Anna Chapman and the rest of the recently arrested Russian intelligence agents.

Walk Ins are volunteers for recruitment. Often these can be extremely productive relationships, although, there is a high degree of fear that a walk in might be a dangle or double agent.

 So that’s it, a basic primer in the vocabulary of the intelligence field. Why does it matter? Sloppy understanding of a subject, poor research and incorrect vocabulary conflate to poorly reported journalism. Poor journalism leads to a poorly informed public. Intelligence Officers have earned the right to be called Officers, they are not spies. Words matter and it’s just not that hard to get it right.


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