Googling for Covert CIA Agents

It’s easy to blow the cover of CIA agents using the Internet:

The CIA asked the Tribune not to publish her name because she is a covert operative, and the newspaper agreed. But unbeknown to the CIA, her affiliation and those of hundreds of men and women like her have somehow become a matter of public record, thanks to the Internet.

When the Tribune searched a commercial online data service, the result was a virtual directory of more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal agency telephone numbers and the locations of some two dozen secret CIA facilities around the United States.

Only recently has the CIA recognized that in the Internet age its traditional system of providing cover for clandestine employees working overseas is fraught with holes, a discovery that is said to have “horrified” CIA Director Porter Goss.

Seems to be serious:

Not all of the 2,653 employees whose names were produced by the Tribune search are supposed to be working under cover. More than 160 are intelligence analysts, an occupation that is not considered a covert position, and senior CIA executives such as Tenet are included on the list.

Covert employees discovered

But an undisclosed number of those on the list—the CIA would not say how many—are covert employees, and some are known to hold jobs that could make them terrorist targets.

Other potential targets include at least some of the two dozen CIA facilities uncovered by the Tribune search. Most are in northern Virginia, within a few miles of the agency’s headquarters. Several are in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington state. There is one in Chicago.

Some are heavily guarded. Others appear to be unguarded private residences that bear no outward indication of any affiliation with the CIA.

A senior U.S. official, reacting to the computer searches that produced the names and addresses, said, “I don’t know whether Al Qaeda could do this, but the Chinese could.”

There are more articles.

Posted on March 13, 2006 at 11:02 AM35 Comments


1915bond March 13, 2006 11:35 AM

Feedback from an ex-CIA guy. It seems that to discover the agents on the internets, you must first know their name.<


2,600 CIA employees? laffz

Davi Ottenheimer March 13, 2006 11:37 AM

Here’s another one

Did you hear the The Bob Edwards Show this weekend? He had a fascinating interview with Gary Hart that touched on vulnerabilities/gaps that come from change and the inability to adapt:

“Bob talks to former Senator Gary Hart about his new book, The Shield and the Cloak: The Security of the Commons. As a member of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, Hart delivered a stern warning to the newly-inaugurated President Bush about the imminent threat of international terrorism on American soil. That was in January of 2001. The warning was largely ignored. Ever since 9/11, Hart has been praised for his keen observations and his continued struggle to draw attention to America’s security weaknesses.”

roy March 13, 2006 12:09 PM

I see this as an example of rudimentary data mining.

One thing the Gov is inherently blind to is that any technology it turns on people is technology that people can turn on it.

Anyone getting surreptitious access to the data TIA processes can analyze the Gov for its vulnerabilities, telling it who’s who and what matters — all without leaving a trace.

David Donahue March 13, 2006 12:41 PM

This is one of those cases where I would hope that disclosure of the vulnerability would be suppressed until it could be fixed.

Lives and actual national security are at stake. Few things rate this treatment, this should be one of them.

Let us all hope that attempting to access the data in this way will now only result in either disinformation (if you’re an actual foreign agent) or black helicopters showing up at your door.

I would assume that the general class of disclosure/vulnerability regarding finding CIA agents or locations is also being addressed. I would also hope that we hear nothing at all about fixing this one.

At some point we have the trust that the CIA will quietly take whatever actions are necessary to sure the secrecy of the identities of it’s agents.

I for one would not want to be knowing this information. Our ignorance of this kind of data is our protection against the threats that covert CIA agents face daily, namely kidnapping, torture, death and others fates I would also prefer not to know.

JakeS March 13, 2006 12:41 PM

At the end of the Trib story, it says that agents “committed other amateurish procedural violations that made it relatively easy for the Italian police to identify them and for Italian prosecutors to charge them with kidnapping.”

Of course, US agencies that break the law in other countries should never be held to account.

Moz March 13, 2006 1:48 PM


I see you in the role of Microsoft 🙂 The bug is not that the agents are identifiable. The systematic bug is that private information is being gathered by commercial organisations and treated as their property, not the property of the people the data is about. A further systematic bug is that the CIA is breaking the law.

Removing the personal information of CIA agents from the internet will just hide the bug and allow other groups such as vivisectionists and abortion doctors to be those who bear the brunt of this problem. Hopefully the CIA will insist on new strong privacy laws for all.

The Radical Suggester March 13, 2006 1:53 PM

Gee – maybe if the U.S. government and the CIA expect that “individuals are the first person responsible for their cover”, then they could enhance the CIA’s ability to operate effectively by helping every individual maintain control over their personal information.

If searches for American individuals in available databases turned up nobody, then you could be fairly certain they weren’t turning up CIA operatives either.

Jan Theodore Galkowski March 13, 2006 4:47 PM

who are they trying to protect? does anyone seriously believe that if an amateur can readily discover the identity of operatives that intelligence agencies of other countries can’t?

this would be something, perhaps, to let go, but it fits a standard pattern of secrecy. most of the time the enemy knows perfectly well the secret that’s trying to be concealed. the folks in the dark are the oversight committees and the general public, groups which in a democratic republic are SUPPOSED to know about these kinds of things.

Maritron March 13, 2006 5:27 PM

I liked this part:

LexisNexis, one of the US’s largest data aggregators, maintains that it only does business with established organisations that can show why they need access to the data such as government agencies, employers, telemarketers, bill collectors, private investigators.

Ahem March 13, 2006 6:05 PM

Our firm recieved a call from someone claiming to be an employee of a certain section of the CIA. It was easy to verify their identity within a certain tolerance for error by first making sure they answered at the number they gave, then googling for the area code and exchange. Most numbers bracketing the number I called were absolutely Agency lines. The unsettling thing was ending up with a text file containing about 200 people’s names, titles, office lines, cell phone lines, fax numbers and home numbers.

Johann Smidt March 13, 2006 9:30 PM

It is NOT a coincidence that this “easy to blow CIA covers” news has come out at the same time that Scooter Libby is under indictment.

Think about it.

Revenant March 13, 2006 9:43 PM

moz: “BBC article on the same subject. The original link posted has an email confirmed registration requirement, which I’d rather not go through.”

Try using to bypass pointless registrations.

ip_available_upon_subpoena March 13, 2006 11:34 PM

Seems like the CIA (and NSA with re: to domestic spying) is more interested in protecting the algorithm than protecting the key.

The notion that remediation of these vulnerabilities – or even the procedures and controls used to ensure the secrecy of operatives or operations – should take place behind closed doors is precisely the reason why such vulnerabilities exist in the first place: they are not subjected to sufficient oversight and scrutiny.

The jingoistic claim by policy makers and pundits that those even discussing the practice of domestic spying (euphamistically: “terrorist surveillance”) does a far greater disservice to those policies and programs are designed to protect. Almost universally, open scrutiny produces more effective security.

The sheer irony that these vulnerabilities should not be publicly discussed in order to preserver programs essential to the security of our democracy could not possibly be more obvious.

Kohler March 13, 2006 11:46 PM

They say that at least 160 of the 2600 were not under cover (George Tenet, etc.). I suspect the number of people who were not really “undercover operatives” is much, much higher. A lot of people have cover for administrative reasons (e.g., to protect them from being targeted by foreign services), but they are not involved in covert operations. I’m reasonably certain that what “blew” their cover was data aggregated from sources where they identified themselves as CIA, or gave CIA contact numbers or addresses. NO serious “undercover operative” does this, under any circumstances. If the employee won’t protect his own cover even to this degree, then no Agency can help him. The jig is not up.

Swiss Connection March 14, 2006 1:06 AM

Interesting is the propaganda that is immediately generated. What does this blatant debacle got to do with Alqaeda and the Chinese? Really!

RonK March 14, 2006 1:54 AM

@Swiss Connection

It’s called journalism. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with its common failure modes. 🙂

Diane March 14, 2006 10:32 AM

“I don’t know whether Al Qaeda could do this, but the Chinese could.”

What, is he assuming members of Al Qaeda can’t use the internet?

April March 14, 2006 2:01 PM

Stupid media….they did not google for the names. They used a pay for service website such as private eye. If the person put down their employer as the CIA when they applied for a mortgage or car loan then it will show up. Surely our CIA is smart enough to know this and give them a false employer that is not so easy to track back to the CIA…Or maybe not.

jmr March 14, 2006 6:12 PM


I’m amused at the notion that a covert CIA officer should be required by US law to follow foreign laws. The point of the CIA is to gather intelligence that will help protect the interests of the USA, and that mission will definitely be at odds with the laws of foreign countries. Now, the act of breaking foreign laws might get the officer noticed, in which case the officer may no longer be in a position to support the US government, but that’s just part of the job. I don’t want my CIA officers held accountable to foreign standards and laws because it means they won’t be able to do their job for me. I DO want the CIA officer to be held accountable to US standards and laws, because to not do so is to not be protecting the interested of the USA, which are codified by law.

Now, I also want to hold foreign spys accountable to US laws. The reason is simple: I value the security of the USA more than I value the security of any other country, because I live in the USA and prefer its government to many others. Thus, these two ideals may seem to be hypocritical, but they are not. Every person who values their own country’s security will hold nearly identical viewpoints.

For example, most countries have laws concerning espionage. I’d rather my CIA officer break those laws to determine the location of the super secret nuclear weapons facility than to blindly accept that foreign countries have their own laws which must be respected. Contrariwise, I do not want foreign governments to acquire nuclear secrets from the USA.

In fact, I bet that there are some countries with laws that apply to people not currently on their soil. In that case, simply being a US citizen and exercising your rights here in the USA might be in violation of foreign law. Should we as US citizens respect that foreign law and refuse to exercise our rights to such things as free speech?

One example of this duality made me chuckle at myself a few months ago. I support the right to do with your property as you will, within guidelines that do not cause harm to society (for example, dumping pollutants on your land). My neighbor wanted to build a duplex. In the context of zoning laws that already exist, I had the right to protest and prevent the duplex from being built. Now I ask you, should I refrain from exercising rights that I don’t believe I should have, but my government has granted me anyway? I really didn’t see a problem with it.

Maybe I’m just good at rationalizing my actions.

Maritron March 14, 2006 8:27 PM

Is the job information one puts down on a mortgage application really considered public knowledge anyone can freely distribute? Maybe these guys should just make all their background checks free, and make their money off all the googleads.

J.D. Abolins March 15, 2006 6:54 AM

It is easy to think of maintaining a cover as a matter of hiding one’s “real” identity and maintaining an alternate one. But this may not hold up for long as individual’s data trails and “dossiers” become more extensive.

One might find it necessary to account for the real persona lest its disappearance or data sparseness is noticeable. If protecting a person’s identity entails keeping the identity from public data disclosures, it can disclose via data gaps or holes. For example, public records access laws could allow public records entries for certain persons — police, judges, etc. — to be flagged for non-disclosure of home addresses and other info. This might be usable if the issue is an overt request for home addresses of police officers. But it has the potential to highlight the protected person if, say, the requested data is of dog licence holders in a city. any person listed by name but has a redacted home address will stand out as a protected person. Then, other search techniques could find the address, etc.

It might be possible to hide the entire record for the person. But then other mismatches may occur. Or cover personae are maintained for work identities. But the push for one person-one ID, real name and address info for ID systems, etc. can lead to a tangle. Somebody mentioned the new passports as having the potential for outing CIA people. The US REAL ID Act has an even greater potential as the standardised data readable IDs will be introduced.

Joe Bloe March 15, 2006 7:47 AM

Okay, does anyone have the idea that this is Lexis Nexis? I’ve used Lexis Nexis to find the locations of countless celebrities just for fun.

joe paranoid March 15, 2006 10:18 AM

My guess is that the spy groups that have mapped our own spies are the israeli gov. Highly developed in tech, owns firms such as Choicepoint, documented to have spied on the USA by placing agents at the highest levels (and lower) in defense and intel. Runs US lobby groups for large amount of slush funds to use in USA based operations. All the parts are there to do real damage.

James March 17, 2006 10:20 PM

According to the Tribune article:
“Several “front companies” set up to provide cover for CIA operatives and the agency’s small fleet of aircraft recently began disappearing from the Internet, following the Tribune’s disclosures that some of the planes were used to transport suspected terrorists to countries where they claimed to have been tortured.”

Well, thank goodness for the “way back machine” and other web history sites. Now, it is even easier to identify the CIA operatives and companies. The CIA has done it for us. We need only compare the current sites to those on the way back machine.

This is nothing new, we used to do the same thing back at Novell. Whenever we suspected a layoff, we would watch the internal company email address book. We could tell who was being laid off by a simple diff of the names in the book. Whomever was removed from the address book was on the chopping block.

None December 14, 2006 2:31 PM

Ear Bones resonate like tuning forks in the ultrasonic frequencies. This is used as a carrier whic is modulated with voice/somatic signals. Governments use this to remotely manipulate and abuse people, it leaves no evidence and they are blocking the commercial release of detection/location equipment to find their transducers.

A real NOC February 10, 2007 2:38 AM

You guys are all idiots. The Agency allows this to occur to protect their “real” and or important assets from being uncovered by terrorists. And yes, agents (always foreign nationals) are always in violation of their own country’s laws. That’s the way it works. You can follow anybody in their car on the way to work at Langley and know that they work for the CIA. But the truth is that these guys “handle” the real operatives in foreign countries. Those are the guys risking their lives, and the ones who do all the damage. You can’t find them on the web and there is no “NOC List”, contrary to what Tom Cruise would like you to believe.

Anonymous February 10, 2007 3:01 AM

That’s too simplistic. There are also guys that live in the U.S. but travel to “hotspots” for business or whatever but have some skill set that the intelligence agencies covet. These men then get “recruited” to employ these skills on behalf of their country. I worked with a guy at bank of america 15 years ago (he’s retired now) who we all suspected did this stuff. We travelled to Latin America a lot but he always had other stuff to do, late night meetings, stuff like that. What convinced me was that one night in Ecuador we were walking back to our hotel and were stopped by military police who “arrested” us for resisting their advances for money. This guy shot them! He certainly didn’t fly down there with a handgun! He explained to me that he was very friendly with some politicos there and it would be alright. This guy knew what he was doing. There are also Americans who live in these countries posing as artists, writers, businessmen, etc. doing the same thing. These are the real NOC’s (non-official cover). Maybe that’s what the guy before really was. They get hung if they get caught spying.

Anonymous February 18, 2007 12:59 PM

hey,are you a cia agent ? if you are i just talk to some one by the name johana i think . i need your advice , when the email had popped on the screan it was weird i whant cntact the same person again . please e-mail me on your web site soon as you can . p.s. it said agent on the bottom of the e-mail

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