The breast-beating season has begun again among our friends in the press, this time about the CIA. In February [MORE] sponsored an editors’ symposium about blowing the cover on an overseas operative. Question: You learn that an American businessman in Italy has been performing part-time labors for the CIA. He thinks he’ll be killed if you print his name. Do you publish it? Answer: With the ghost of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief who was murdered in Athens, hovering in the background, the editors responded with an almost unanimous no.

A worthy enough sentiment, but it does seem to miss the point of what’s been going on. During the laments and eulogies for Richard Welch, the authorities had great fun blaming the press—especially the previously unheralded Counter-Spy magazine—for sending Welch to his doom by publishing his name. The underlying idea seemed to be that a group of Greek leftists had been sitting at home, frustrated in their desire to assassinate an agent, until Counter-Spy gave them the necessary and otherwise-unavailable clue.

It must have been difficult to deliver these admonitions with a straight face, since no one knew better than the CIA men themselves that Counter-Spy added very little to the perils of their trade. As the agency has known for years, anyone bent on killing an agent—or merely blowing his cover in an American embassy—need hardly resort to such exotic publications as Counter-Spy, but can instead rely on documents provided by the U. S. government itself. As long as the State Department keeps publishing its Diplomatic List and Biographic Register, enemies of the CIA will have quick and authoritative means of identifying our agents overseas.

As John Marks explained in this magazine in November 1974, the system works this way: The Diplomatic List tells you who’s working in each overseas embassy, with their rank (FSO-3, for example, or FSR-4) and job title (secretary, deputy chief of mission, etc.). The Biographic Register provides a career history of the people mentioned in the Diplomatic List. For bona fide members of the Foreign Service, certain familiar patterns emerge. There is often a first consular assignment in Juarez or Lahore, then a spell back with the African desk in Washington, and next a step up the ladder as a deputy political officer. in Quito or Bonn. Along with the assignments, ranks are listed, from the starting level of FSO-8 on up to the top, FS0-1.

Amidst these capsule biographies are alien entries for diplomats who are not FSOs but FSRs, or Reserve officers. Not all these Reserve officers are camouflaged spooks, but a good many are. When the CIA wants to hide a man in, say, Athens, it may designate him a “political officer” in the embassy and assign him an FSR rank. But the sophisticated observer will know that the only true political officers are FSOs. This is one clue. Another is Washington assignments such as “analyst” for the Army or Navy or Air Force. With such clues, the CIA man’s listing in the Register might just as well say “Spy.” To anyone who cares to look, the message will be clear.

The signposts provided by the Biographic Register are so plain that the CIA has on at least one occasion pleaded with the State Department to stop publishing it, or failing that, at least to make it a classified document. “I believe it was in 1968 that the Agency asked State to stop putting it out,” says Ray S. Cline, who worked many years for the CIA before moving to the State Department as head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. (He has since joined Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic Studies.) “It had always been a problem that the CIA was concerned about. After two or three tours as an FSR, you really began to stand out in the Register. The fact that you falsely contaminated a few other people, who happened to be Reserve officers but didn’t work for the Agency, didn’t give a great deal of satisfaction, either.”

The State Department turned the CIA down. When Cline moved over to State, he tried once again. His position within the Department was an influential one, but on this issue he could not make the Foreign Service budge. Finally, he says, “I tried to get Richard Helms [then the director of the CIA] to go to bat on this. I told him that I would be his advocate inside State. But Helms was never much of a scrapper.”

And so the beleaguered agents were left to fend for themselves, knowing that the hand that lifted their cover came not from their foes of the committed left but from their brethren in Foggy Bottom.

What is so fascinating about all this is the State Department’s intractability. Part of it, of course, results from the absence of fraternal affection between the two departments. In its own version of utopia, the CIA would give its agents much-improved cover by making them full-fledged members of the Foreign Service, complete with FSO rankings. The State Department, of course, will have none of that. On its scale of values, protecting its members from “contamination” by spies vastly outranks protecting the CIA. But the Foreign Service could still preserve its own integrity without actively torpedoing the CIA if it simply refrained from publishing the Register. Why does it continue to do so? The answer leads us into the thickets of organizational life.

“It’s a kind of stud book,” says Cline. “When you run into someone, you can look him up and say, ‘Oh yes, he was in Kuala Lampur when I was in Hong Kong.’ ” Like the alumni directory for a high-powered school, the Register enables Foreign Service officers to keep track of their colleagues, especially on matters of advancement and decline. Has old Bill made Three yet? Who got that posting to Paris? Am I gaining or am I falling behind? The Register provides another service as well, for, like a Blue Book or Social Register, it indicates the appropriate degree of respect due any given visitor. The military has solved this problem by letting its members wear their ranks on their uniforms. When a general comes calling, you only have to count his stars. Rank is nearly as important for an FSO, but the Foreign Service has not yet developed a tasteful means of putting stars on pin-striped suits. The solution is the Register. “It was miraculous the way people started treating me better after I became a One,” says a former official at State.

There is one grand, solemn moral to this story, which is that the CIA has been pointing the finger at the wrong culprit. There is a more whimsical moral as well, which, in the days when Richard Welch and Philip Agee are long forgotten, may be the more important. It is that the necessities of organizational life—wanting to know how the competition is doing, needing a quick guide to protocol—can sometimes have as great an impact as the most fervent ideology. Counter-Spy wants to rub out the CIA; the State Department merely wants to keep score on the climb up the greasy pole. From which does the CIA have more to fear?

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.