When International Spying Fails, the CIA Turns to World of Warcraft

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 10:46 AM EST

After a string of failures in the real world, the Central Intelligence Agency is turning its attention to Azeroth.

ProPublica, the Guardian, and the New York Times reported jointly on Monday that the CIA, the NSA, and British intelligence agencies infiltrate online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life, to seek out scientists, engineers, embassy workers, and other foreign operatives who could be recruited as spies .

The documents obtained by the three news organizations give no evidence that monitoring online games have led to the capture of any terrorists. But the CIA's real-world spying isn't going well either, a gaggle of former agency officials told the Los Angeles Times Monday.

The CIA's $3 billion overseas spying program depended heavily on operatives given "non-official cover," or NOCs, who typically pose as businesspeople and gather intelligence from foreign universities, businesses, and local hotspots, the paper reports. But NOCs and those recruiting them face a myriad of challenges. For starters, the CIA has trouble finding NOCs with language skills—and if you can't speak passable Pashto, you're probably not going to uncover much intelligence in Pashto-speaking parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In some cases, NOCs take advantage of their special status, billing the CIA for unjustified time and expenses, the former CIA officials told the paper. And NOCs, who have no diplomatic immunity, are often kept out of more dangerous locations by their handlers, limiting the amount of useful information they can obtain. "If you're a high-grade agency manager, are you going to sign off on a memo that puts Joe Schmuckatelli in Pyongyang?" one former case officer told the Times.

The CIA's reliance on NOCs has damaged its overseas spying efforts, the officials told the paper. In Iran, for instance, authorities exposed American operatives despite fake identities working for CIA-created front companies. And Iran wasn't an exception: One official told the paper he knew of only three successful NOCs in his 23 years as a case officer. Maybe focusing some more attention on World of Warcraft is a good idea after all.