Several months after her identity as a CIA operative was exposed in a newspaper column, Valerie Plame had dinner with five of her classmates...

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WASHINGTON — Several months after her identity as a CIA operative was exposed in a newspaper column, Valerie Plame had dinner with five of her classmates from the agency’s training academy.

Four had already left the CIA, and they spent the evening catching up on what they had done during their clandestine careers, as well as the jobs and moves that followed. But even though Plame’s “cover” had been cracked wide open, her dinner companions didn’t pry for details. Even in that tight circle, no one wanted to spill any more secrets.

“Cover is a mosaic, it’s a puzzle,” said James Marcinkowski, a former CIA case officer who attended the dinner. “Every piece is important [to protect] because you don’t know which pieces the bad guys are missing.”

The Plame case has brought intense scrutiny on the White House amid disclosures that President Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, is a central figure in the controversy surrounding the disclosure of Plame’s identity to the media.

But it also has called attention to the precious, concealing commodity that the intelligence community calls cover. The term refers to the amalgam of lies and props, from false names to phony front companies, that disguise a spy’s true identity and purpose.

Although often cast in binary terms — an operative is either under cover or not — there are distinct categories of cover that CIA agents use, and an almost endless list of components. Some cover is tissue-thin and disposable. Other arrangements are so layered and deep that they anticipate hostile probing of every facet of a person’s life.

Plame’s cover, in which she posed as a private energy consultant while actually working for a CIA department tracking weapons proliferation, was somewhere in the middle.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said it’s unlikely that Plame is in any danger as a result of being identified. And an internal review at the CIA concluded that her exposure caused minimal damage, mainly because she had been working at headquarters for years, former officials familiar with the review said.

Still, her clandestine career is over, and the outrage among many current and former case officers lingers because cover is something they go to such great lengths to protect.

“It doesn’t matter whether he used her name,” Marcinkowski said of the recent disclosures surrounding Rove. “It doesn’t matter what her status was. He gave up a piece of the puzzle, and he had no right to do it.”

Stripped of cover

As many as one-third of the CIA’s approximately 20,000 employees are under cover or have worked in that capacity at some point in their careers, according to former CIA officials. The agency declined to comment for this article.

The vast majority of the agency’s undercover officers work in the clandestine service, the branch that operates stations around the world, recruiting spies, tracking terrorists and carrying out covert missions designed to influence events or even topple governments.

Plame’s identity was revealed in print nearly two years ago by Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist and conservative commentator. But cover can be compromised in a number of ways.

The most damaging breaches have often been committed by insiders, such as former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who was convicted in the mid-1990s of spying for the Soviet Union and revealing dozens of undercover operations and agents’ identities to his Russian handlers. In fact, Plame was among those recalled from their overseas assignments at that time out of concern — never confirmed, former CIA officials said — that she was among those Ames had exposed.

More recently, a host of CIA aliases and cover arrangements were exposed in embarrassing fashion by an Italian magistrate.

The judge was seeking to prosecute agency operatives for their alleged role in kidnapping a radical Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003 and transferring him to Egypt. Court records released in the case list the names, phone numbers and other details drawn from travel documents used by 19 suspected CIA operatives accused of taking part in the operation.

Most of the names seem to be aliases, but the documents appear to contain the real identities of a senior CIA officer based in Milan, and two others in the United States.

The documents suggest that three of the operatives represented themselves as employees of a company called Coachmen Enterprises in Washington, D.C. A search of public directories and business records turned up no listing for such a firm.

Another operative, who used the name Eliana Castaldo, is linked in the documents to a telephone number in Pennsylvania. Several calls by a reporter were answered by different female voices offering inconsistent answers to basic questions. One refused to identify the business, a second said she was with an answering service, while a third said the number was that of “Washburn and Company.” In each case, the speaker said there was no Eliana Castaldo at that number.

Most dangerous category

CIA officials describe such flimsy backstopping as “notional cover,” a thin guise for operations that don’t need to withstand intense or long-term scrutiny.

The vast majority of the agency’s overseas officers are under what is known as “official cover,” which means they are posing as employees of another government agency. The State Department allows hundreds of its positions in embassies around the world to be occupied by CIA officers representing themselves as diplomats.

A rarer and more dangerous job category is “nonofficial cover” — or “NOC” (pronounced knock) — in which CIA officers pose as employees of international corporations, as scientists or as members of other professions. Such covers tend to provide a plausible reason to work long periods overseas and come in contact with foreign nationals the agency wants to recruit.

Plame worked under official cover early in her career but moved to nonofficial, commercial cover during the 1990s, maintaining that status even after she returned from overseas to work at CIA headquarters.

In recent years, she has worked in the counter-proliferation division of the agency’s clandestine service. Despite her continued use of commercial cover until Novak’s column, some former CIA officials argue she was not a NOC in the purest sense, because operatives in that supersecret program rarely go near agency facilities, let alone take jobs at headquarters.

NOCs are known for taking extreme risks as part of their work. If caught by a foreign intelligence service, they have no diplomatic immunity to protect them from prosecution under their host country’s laws.

One former NOC who left the agency several years ago said he spent more than a decade overseas collecting intelligence on high-priority targets. All the while he was posing as a midlevel official with well-known multinational companies.

The former officer said he had worked for several years as a business consultant before joining the agency, making him a perfect candidate for the NOC program. To throw his training classmates off the scent, he had to tell them he was quitting the agency in frustration.

Senior executives at his cover employers were aware of his real identity, but other company employees were not. During the day, he performed the ordinary duties of a person occupying his cover position, and once even helped his employer land a $2 million contract. But he said he spent three or four nights each week holding clandestine meetings with sources cultivated during the day.

The costs of cover

The total number of NOCs is relatively small — thought to be in the dozens — and some NOCs can spend decades in their assignments.

The process of creating and maintaining their cover is both elaborate and costly. NOCs who hide behind front companies rely on the CIA’s cover staff to establish false tax records, payroll checks, incorporation papers, phone lines and sometimes even the hiring of other employees.

Often, even close relatives have to be shielded from the truth. The former NOC said it was particularly traumatic to inform his son, when the boy was in his midteens, that his father had been misleading him for years about his true line of work.

“He was pretty stunned,” the former NOC said. “He was also disappointed that no, I didn’t carry a gun, didn’t get to meet pretty enemy spies and that my cellphone was just a cellphone.”

Other former CIA officers described similarly difficult conversations with loved ones, and said one of the hardest parts of being under cover is the extent to which that status can complicate your personal life.

Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, said the two met at a diplomatic party in 1997.

“But I didn’t know what she did until we were well along in our courtship,” he said, adding that her public outing continues to ripple through her private life.

“People she has known for upwards of 20 years have all sort of had to go through this period of adjusting to who is the real Valerie Wilson.”