I wasn't in the theatre when the first Mission Impossible movie was shown a decade and a half ago. I've only seen it on television. It shows up on various cable networks from time to time. I watched it again last night. Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames carry most of it for me. One drawback: It's hard for me to imagine the helicopter scene producing anything but laughter in the movie house back in the 90s. The movie is predicated, in part, on nothing being coincidence. Ever. But the final moment of the fight scene in front of helicopter blades relies on just that sort of coincidence.
But the movie did provide the sort of satisfaction that such films often give to devotees of television programs from the past. For me, I think it provides a sort of assurance that the story continues in some kind of alternate fictional world. The final Star Trek prequel did that for me, despite a few flaws.
Alfred Hitchcock called it a MacGuffin. It's the desired object everyone fights to get, the object that drives the plot. The plot device for Mission Impossible was a list of American agents, the most vulnerable agents a nation can have. The agents were all covert operatives working in foreign countries, working with no diplomatic protection. The agents were called NOCs for non-official cover.
Most agents working for national intelligence services are professionals. They work in various official roles, doubling as agents. If caught, they are protected from the harshest of penalties. Think Nathan Hale, who regretted having but one life to give for his country before the British executed him. Diplomatic immunity keeps that from happening. They get expelled. Big deal.
The NOC list was the Mission Impossible bow to the real world of espionage. NOC agents actually exist. They are a special category of operatives. They do not have any diplomatic protection. A business person, a visiting professor, a volunteer, or a tourist might be recruited as a NOC. They could be killed, they could face "enhanced interrogation," they could be imprisoned in harsh conditions for indeterminate periods. After recruitment, NOCs are trained to deny any connection to the United States. "The Secretary will disavow any knowledge" is made possible because NOCs don't talk.
It gets worse if a NOC is caught. There is a multiplying effect. Sometimes false companies or organizations are set up to provide a plausible working cover for NOCs. If a NOC is detected, it puts into danger any other NOC sponsored by the same false organization. It also exposes any person in a foreign land the NOC was able to get information from. Cooperating with a foreign agent in some countries can get you killed.
That's one of the dangers of WikiLeaks, the Julian Assange group who will publish nearly anything provided about government secrets. One of their earliest exposes involved the identities of those providing information to undercover agents about developing terrorist plots. If you let someone know about a plot to blow up kids, you can find yourself identified through a careless release by WikiLeaks. So step right up. Save some lives. Tell us what you know. Anybody? Don't all speak up at once.
If the Mission Impossible scenario had been real, the danger would have been to a lot of people. NOC agents around the world would have been killed. Others would have been put into prison for a long, long time. Less civilized nations with leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Dick Cheney would have subjected them to torture under some other name. And thousands of foreign citizens who had secretly cooperated in revealing dangerous plans would have been exposed.
A few years after Mission Impossible had had its day, retired to rental movie shops, a group of fanatics killed thousands on American soil using hijacked commercial aircraft as weapons. The Bush administration was captivated by the suspicion, then the conviction, that the attacks had to have been state sponsored. Despite torture by another name, no clear connection had been found to the main suspect, Iraq.
So other rationale had been devised and disseminated. One tenuous story was that Saddam Hussein had been seeking vast quantities of low grade uranium from the African country of Niger. The partially processed uranium was called "yellowcake" and could be further processed into weapons grade fissionable material. Intelligence services found the story to be not credible. But the bogus story was put into intelligence reports given to Congress and strategically placed into publications who thought it had come to them from independent sources.
And those of us who were taken in were haunted by visions of nuclear clouds over American cities.
But there was a public statement against that bit of misinformation.
Joe Wilson had been America's ambassador to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s. Hussein had directly threatened Ambassador Wilson with death if any foreigners were sheltered in Iraq. Wilson publicly defied the dictator, appearing at a press conference wearing a noose and challenging Saddam to use it on him. He sheltered 100 people at the American embassy and was embraced by the first President Bush as a hero.
And he was.
Years later, as America was preparing to invade Iraq, Wilson had just been to Niger. Over the years he had developed a lot of friendships there. He poked around and spoke directly to sources who would know of any real moves to get the uranium. He drew blanks from everywhere. He came back to the United States and went public. He could say with confidence the stories were bogus.
The Bush/Cheney administration was furious from top to bottom. And so someone let out an interesting fact.
Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a NOC, a non-official cover agent for the United States. She had been in several Middle Eastern countries gathering information. She had become an expert in weapons of mass destruction. There was some controversy about just who in the administration had spoken that classified fact. An aide to Colin Powell thought he might have been the first to let it slip. Some were much more deliberate about it. Karl Rove announced to others in the administration that the NOC status of Joe Wilson's wife was "fair game."
Her identity was revealed. The false company she was assigned to was exposed. So other NOCs were exposed as well. And so was anyone she had ever been known to have spoken with, those from whom she had solicited information.
The message to anyone connected to the CIA was loud and clear. If you or anyone you know cross the Bush administration, your secret classification just might find itself in the public domain.
Cheney advisor Scooter Libby was eventually tried for lying to investigators looking into Cheney's involvement. Then President Bush released him from serving his sentence.
In idle moments I wondered about the names of the participants in the national security drama. The odd coincidence of good and evil seemed to come from a Dante story. All American Joe Wilson was the perfect name for an Ambassador standing up to a dictator. Valerie Plame was a perfect name for a made-for-television super spy. Karl Rove, with a "K" was the perfect name for a conniving villain. Scooter Libby as the hapless fall guy who lied to protect his boss. It was out of a cheap piece of pulp fiction.
During the entire outing of the non-official cover, conservatives hastened to downplay the breach of national security. No technical law had been violated, they said, because she had not been an agent long enough to be covered by law. If she was so vital, her husband should not have gone public and attracted the revenge move. It was her own fault. Besides, she had probably convinced her husband, the Ambassador, to go to Niger, which made him kind of a wife-bossed sissy. Bottom line: it just wasn't all that serious.
President Obama has been in the news this week. Stories have surfaced that some classified details have been revealed to journalists about the killing of bin Laden. Obama expresses anger about it. Release of secret details is a serious offense. If it actually happened, heads will roll. His fury certainly appears genuine. Attorney General Eric Holder has sent prosecutors to investigate with an eye to applying harsh prison time.
Conservatives are accusing White House officials of releasing details to make the President look good. That strikes me as a little premature. But those conservatives who are loudly condemning any possible compromise of national security are right to speak out. Those who leak national secrets should face serious prison time.
No word yet on why the outing of a NOC operative a few years was pretty much okay.
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