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The Greys

by on February 2, 2016

                                                          The Greys

                                                    by Marco M. Pardi

                                             All comments appreciated

“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain (1835 – 1910). Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. 66. 1897.

Spoiler Alert: There will be nothing in here about those jointless, sexless, rubbery creatures supposedly teleporting from UFOs into your bedroom at night. To the best of my knowledge, E.T. went home.  E.T. groupies should look elsewhere.

I was in prep school when a classmate introduced me to MAD magazine.  I thought it was rather a dumb waste of paper, much as I have long thought Saturday Night Live is a waste of air time.  MAD magazine had a feature I considered: Spy vs. Spy.  The two ongoing characters were simply drawn in cloaks and hats. One was white and one was black. From issue to issue these two went at each other with knives, crude bombs, and other lethal devices. 

I already knew that professional intelligence officers rarely employed lethal means against each other. Although military intelligence units draw from a somewhat different pool from civilian agencies, the field itself requires a significant educational background including linguistic and cultural skills and, especially for Embassy based civilian personnel, expertise in diplomatic cover fields including but not limited to economics, humanities, and/or the social sciences.  Officers have traditionally been drawn from the best universities, have advanced degrees, and are thoroughly conversant in their ostensible subject matters.  Thus, there is a sort of gentleman’s agreement against personal violence.  This is not well understood by the general public, exposed to the field only by dramatic “shoot-em-up” films and novels. 

Why not kill an opposing intelligence officer?  Simple: A dead officer yields little or no information; a dead officer cannot be “doubled” back onto his own service; except in rare circumstances, a dead officer cannot be exchanged for a live prisoner; and, the last thing anyone wants is an open season on each other’s officers. So, yes, one can pose the sides as pure white and pure black but the inter-professional violence almost never occurs.

Officers serving in embassies have diplomatic cover and diplomatic immunity.  Although some have been abducted by terrorist organizations, or killed in terrorist attacks on embassies State level organizations do not target them in this way; they target them to turn them or to expel them.  However, officers serving as NOCs – Non Official Cover, such as those deployed as business executives, academics, NGO – Non Governmental Organization personnel or serving under Participating Agency Service Agreements – PASAs, with other governmental agencies such as USAID, CDC, etc are at risk. But rarely is the risk mortal. They are targeted for arrest and imprisonment to be held as bargaining chips should the need or opportunity arise to free one’s own. A different, and numerically much smaller group of NOCs is that which might be compared to the Internal Affairs offices within police departments. On rare occasions there may be need to take Direct Action, probably involving Executive Sanction. An interesting military example was portrayed in the film Apocalypse Now. Col. Kurtz was supposedly based on the Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But a real life version can be found in an Army officer who stayed behind in Cambodia, forming his own army and becoming a warlord at the end of WWII.  Eventually, he had to be terminated. A more recent civilian example is Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who, from his refuge in England, exposed much of Putin’s doings. He was assassinated by spiking his tea with Polonium 210.

Actions of this kind, whether against one’s own or against someone losing their nerve and threatening to unravel a network must be deniable.  Embassy based personnel must be entirely insulated.  A NOC, such as a visiting academic researching a manuscript in progress or a health worker attending international meetings is a highly desirable vehicle, giving the embassy personnel alibis.  Of course, the NOC is deniable, leaving him or her on their own.

So who are the greys?  I coined this term in reaction to the MAD magazine depiction of the spy world. The greys are constituted from many different sources.  These include well placed business people, especially in international business; academics in college/university teaching and/or research positions; health professionals, especially in consortiums or agencies that work internationally; journalists; and some retired and/or specialist officers still contributing to the field.  These often blur the lines of “agent”.  An agent is a tool, selected for the job and put aside when the job is finished. As one learns the complexities of the “Hall of Mirrors” world of civilian intelligence agencies one learns of officers and their agents – commonly known as “Joes”.  Joes are not career service officers.  They are stay-in-place insiders who provide the information sought by the case officer. As non-professionals, they are viewed by both sides as traitors and, when discovered by their own side are usually, after interrogation and if attempts to double them fail, prosecuted and/or summarily executed.  

A person becomes a Joe for any of several reasons. Some are drawn by the excitement, some as a means of retribution against a system they feel has ignored or marginalized them, some by a developing ideology, and some merely for money. The ones in it for the money are the easiest to handle though they must always be cautioned against conspicuous displays; they must be made to maintain a credible income base.  The bulk of the money is often sequestered for them in untraceable accounts, leaving them with just enough to feel they really are getting paid.

Now it may seem that those in it for the money are deserving of the most scorn.  But that vaunted spot is hotly contested by journalists.  The primary driver for journalists is ego, the vision of being the next Woodward or Bernstein, Jack Anderson, or Seymour Hersch. They will pursue this vision no matter the cost to others, the Valerie Plame example being only one of many. Blinkered by their egos, journalists are laughably easy to manipulate and many do not seem to know their incomes are from various intelligence agencies which outright own or substantially subsidize their outlet. Planting stories, letting something “slip”, talking “off the record” with them is a challenge in holding back the question – “Don’t you get it?”

Others, especially those with an axe to grind present greater risks.  But in no case will a Joe know the true name and position of his case officer. A savvy potential Joe will know that rule and be fine with it.  But some of the greatest risks arise when a Joe wants to see results, beyond money, from his efforts. What the Joe often does not realize is that even the case officer usually does not have “the Big Picture”.  The “raw product” gathered by the case officer is submitted into the bowels of departments specializing in analysis. From there it goes to higher echelons empowered to act upon it, file it, or discard it.  Since that level of decision making is above the analysts, it should be clear that while the analysts may have a larger picture, they too do not have the big picture. They usually do not individually see the lines of input from other sources and the analyses of different but related products. Lower levels analyze; higher levels collate; still higher levels decide the disposition.  This is common sense compartmentalization.  But it may also include “eyewash”, a controversial internal tactic which issues false information to one recipient (perhaps a CIA station as a whole) while also sending true information to select recipients within the station, thus generating a SAP – Special Access Program.  This follows the dictum: Right AND Need to Know and applies at all levels. Even Cicely d’Autremont, the widow of James Jesus Angleton, career Associate Deputy Director of Operations for Counter-Intelligence – ADDOCI, did not know of his actual career until the CIA memorial service in his honor.  She thought he worked for the State Department.  Thus, one can hardly expect a grey, or Joe, would be privy to decisions and results based on submitted information.

And therein lies a problem.  Money motives aside, if the Joe begins to feel the risks outweigh the rewards – in this case tangible results, the Joe will waiver, providing sexed up material gleaned from open sources or simply bogus information.  His handler must walk the line between honestly telling him how much he does not know and giving him enough encouragement to continue.  Joes are lost continuously. They drop contact and appear again late enough to make one wonder if they have been exposed and turned.  The wise policy is to discontinue.  If absolutely necessary, they can be fed bait (several different terms are used for this) to see if it pops up elsewhere.

In sum, greys – nonprofessionals who somehow enter the intelligence orbit, are sometimes more common and numerous than black or white professionals.  Some, like journalists, do not know they are being played.  Others, like those in international business, banking or research quickly realize they are being debriefed by professionals. They may have momentary qualms about their participation, but carefully crafted intrigue usually keeps them coming back.  And once the specific need for them has passed, or they have moved on to other non-access positions, or they have retired, they may have stories for their grandchildren and nothing more.   The whites and the blacks rarely tell anyone.


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  1. P L WEDDING permalink

    Silver Fox…come in…Silver Fox!


  2. Thanks, Pam. In the immortal words of Sgt. Schultz, “I see NOTTINK, I hear NOTTINK, I know NOTTINK!”


  3. I spent quite a bit of my busy yesterday thinking about this very well written post and how I might go about answering it. You are, after all, preaching to the choir here. There are so many layers involved in national security, and so very few people are aware of the extent to which it impacts all of our lives. Conspiracy theorists aside, even paranoids can have real enemies. Do you remember the old meme, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” ?

    Very little, if anything, is black and white. I’m for public access to a lot of things, factually speaking, but given the average intelligence of today’s citizens, a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing. Just because it exists doesn’t mean Joe Average has a need, or even a right, to know. So many things which military, diplomatic, and security personnel take for granted would come as a great surprise to the general population.

    On a personal level, we all keep secrets from the people in our lives. Sometimes it’s to save feelings from being hurt, and sometimes it’s just to help keep the peace. There’s a lot to say about the value of knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut.

    Many years ago, I was tasked with transporting someone to a mental hospital. He was (ostensibly) in the middle of a psychotic episode in which he imagined himself a prisoner of war. The old term would have been “flashback”, as he had told me before that he was a captive in Viet Nam. Unfortunately for him, I had seen him in such a state before, after which he asked me if I understood what was going on. They tell me that people rarely remember what happened during a genuine flashback, so that was my clue to his lies.

    Along the way, he grabbed the wheel and demanded to know where he was being taken. I fell back on the old military standard, “That’s confidential information, soldier, and you don’t have the need to know.” Rather than admit his deception, he was forced to fall in with mine.


    • Thank you, Rose. POGO is my personal hero. It is sad there are journalists who will cater to any public whim, even drive it for their own ends. Someone pays, and it’s rarely them. For example, every foreign national associated with Valerie Plame immediately fell under suspicion, bringing about many arrests, imprisonment, or worse. Families were ruined. All so Dick Cheney could further his lies that Iraq was seeking to buy yellow cake uranium.

      Your on the spot reaction and handling of the veteran was excellently done. You would be a great asset. Marco


    • Dana permalink

      Rose, you had me thinking about flashbacks. I know someone who sometimes presents symptoms of PTSD, some of which include flashbacks. His sibling has probably fared worse, with symptoms like exaggerated startling her entire life. They both endured quite a lot of childhood trauma.

      A recent flashback left my friend distraught for days; he accidentally happened upon the actual location of a distant memory. While the memory of being in that same place wasn’t traumatic, the circumstances surrounding the reasons for being there were. He lost touch with reality, feeling he was in that precise place and “time” (which was around 30 years ago).

      However, he does remember the details of the flashback, although has no recollection of how long it lasted, whether a few seconds or several minutes. He does recall feeling terrified and extremely upset during it, and unfortunately, it took place in a very public location. He ended up fallng apart crying and trying to suppress sobs.

      I do wonder what an expert in PTSD would have to say. My friend did say he doesn’t ever want to travel that same street again, especially on a city bus (where the flashback occurred).


  4. Don’t you have to kill us all now that we know all this?


  5. LA LA LA. I did not read this. I know nothing! See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey over here.


  6. Gregg permalink

    A frequent question in the Bay Area is whether or not the very left Berkeley station KPFA has intelligence plants on its board of directors to manage misinformation. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did but I understand as a listener there is very little I can do any way about it. I would say something similar for Coast to Coast AM but I can’t imagine too many people take that program seriously.


  7. Thanks, Gregg. The general public still has the impression that Intelligence work is only about gathering information; they seem to have no idea it is easily half about shaping opinion, especially through media outlets.


  8. Dana permalink

    Marco, I’ve never heard of “Joes” before. Very interesting piece, and not much I can add in the way of comments.

    This did give me an ear worm of a song my mother used to sing when I was a child, “It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me. So, set ’em up, Joe….”


    • Thanks, Dana. Pretty standard industry jargon. And, a way of depersonalizing – which must remain paramount.

      Sounds like a drinking song. A bit out of character?


      • Dana permalink

        Evidently an old Sinatra song…. Never was a fan, myself.


    • Speaking of jargon, the FBI uses the title Special Agent. But inside the Company, the FBI is commonly referred to as the F__kin’ Bunch of Idiots.


      • Dana permalink

        Marco, I wondered if you were able to watch the interview some time ago with the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. I was mainly interested in your thoughts about the FBI profiler interviewed, and how much validity (if any) there is to that type of work.


        • Thank you, Dana. I did see that interview. While I do not want to delve too deeply into the subject of profiling, I will say it is, as is often said, an “inexact science”. More to the point, the public is treated to the successes but not the failures. I would want to see the profile erected BEFORE an identification and capture, not just one presented after the fact.


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