US Federal Government photo of former NCS chief Michael Sulick

CIA director John Brennan has appointed someone to fill the position of National Clandestine Service (NCS) director. The individual, however, is apparently going to keep his undercover status.

First, a key aspect of this news is the fact that the person appointed is not the woman, who had been serving as the acting director of the clandestine service. Her consideration drew attention because she had played a role in the destruction of CIA torture tapes and had also run a “black site” or secret prison in Thailand.

The CIA mantains her involvement in the rendition, detention and interrogation program had nothing to do with the fact she was not appointed. “The assertion she was not chosen because of her affiliation with the [counterterrorism] mission is absolutely not true,” said CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood, according to various media reports. So, there is no reason to think ethics or morality played a role in not selecting her for the job.

Greg Miller of the Washington Post reports details on who was appointed:

Brennan has given the job to a 57-year-old veteran officer who served overseas tours in Pakistan and Africa, and was recently in charge of the agency’s Latin America division, according to public records and former officials. He is also undercover, U.S. officials said…

…The new spy chief is a veteran of the US Marine Corps who initially joined the CIA’s paramilitary branch but spent most of his career in traditional espionage assignments. He assumes control of the spy division at a time when Brennan has signaled concern that intelligence collection has been hampered by the agency’s emphasis on drone strikes…

Miller notes, “The names of both officers are widely known in the intelligence community, but the agency said they remain undercover, and it requested that they not be identified.”

Had the female officer been appointed, it would have been prudent for the press, who knew her name, to disclose her identity. Though the new chief does not appear to have a history in torture, his identity should be public, like the two previous chiefs’ names were.

The NCS was established in 2005. Then-Director of National Intelligence, John D. Negroponte, and then-CIA director Porter Goss announced on October 13, 2005, that the NCS would “strengthen the direction and leadership of human intelligence throughout the Intelligence Community (IC).” Goss stated, “The decision to create the NCS at CIA underscores CIA’s proud position as the center of gravity for HUMINT in our Intelligence Community.”

The NCS would incorporate the “current Directorate of Operations” and “be led by the Director of the National Clandestine Service (D/NCS) to whom the D/CIA” would “delegate his day-to-day National HUMINT Manager responsibilities.” The D/NCS would “coordinate, de-conflict, and assess HUMINT operations throughout” the intelligence community and “report directly to the D/CIA.” It would have “two deputies,” one who would “lead the daily activities of the CIA’s Clandestine Service” and another who would “focus on human intelligence activities across” the intelligence community.

Previous NCS chief, John D. Bennett, was publicly announced by then-CIA director Leon Panetta on July 21, 2010. A press release was posted on the CIA’s website the same day.

“John has impeccable credentials at the very core of intelligence operations—espionage, covert action, and liaison,” Panetta declared . “He has been at the forefront of the fight against al-Qa’ida and its violent allies.”

Michael J. Sulick, the NCS chief before Bennett, was also publicly announced. A press release on his appointment was posted on September 14, 2007. Then-CIA director Michael Hayden wrote up a statement on Sulick that was posted on September 17. It highlighted how he was a former intelligence officer with a twenty-five year history, who worked in the private sector for a few years before taking the job as head of the clandestine service.

The Washington Post covered Bennett’s appointment. The media organization also covered the appointment of Sulick.

Jose Rodriguez, a former CIA officer, pro-torture advocate who was involved in the destruction of secret torture tapes as the head of the Counterterrorism Center, assumed the position of NCS chief when NCS was created and kept his undercover status. The Associated Press reported on August 8, 2007, that “one of the CIA’s top spooks” had “come out of the shadows.” He decided to lift his cover a month ago because he had an interest in “publicly participating in minority recruitment events,” according to the CIA spokesperson at the time.

Sulick actually participated in a speaking event with students and some faculty at Fordham University on March 25, 2010. The Post reported he had told students the CIA had “seen no fall-off in intelligence since waterboarding was banned by the Obama administration.”

“I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint,” Sulick told students and some faculty members at Fordham University, his alma mater, on March 25. “But I don’t want to talk about [it from] a legal, moral or ethical standpoint.”

According to the university’s news service, Sulick said it was tough for any U.S. agencies dealing with terrorism to balance security and civil liberties.

The CIA’s NCS operated with a publicly known chief from September 17, 2007 to February 28, 2013, and, in that time, the CIA’s drone program appears to have flourished in Pakistan. There seems to have been no major impediment to operations or the ability to coordinate the collection of “human intelligence.” Around 300 drone strikes were launched against targets and killed some “militants,” some civilians. The CIA has been able to ally with Somali warlords and outsource management of secret prison sites to Somalia’s National Security Agency.

It is possible for the NCS chief to not work undercover. It is not like being publicly known means the world knows anything about the daily operations of the NCS.

Whether maintaining cover is discretionary or not, a decision by the chief and/or others in the CIA to serve publicly should be considered an exploitation of secrecy powers. Everyone should ask why the new spy chief does not intend to serve publicly and be concerned about whatever he might think he will not be able to do as chief if his identity is known.