When I was a kid, growing up in eastern Canada back in the 1960s, one of my favourite television programs was an espionage-drama called The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
It involved a super secret army of agents, operating domestically and around the world, fighting the bad guys from an organization called THRUSH.
Headlined by handsome and dashing actors Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, it was a popular program in its day.
Of course, it was all spy fiction.
Yet, in an apparent case of life imitating art, we have learned this week that such a secret force, actually does exist — minus the cool headquarters in New York with the fake tailor shop entrance.
According to an investigative report in Newsweek, the US Pentagon is running a secret army of 60,000 deep cover operatives around the world, some of them embedded in top companies and carrying out operations without the knowledge or consent of Congress.
The force, said to be ten times the size of the CIA’s clandestine element and with a budget of US$900 million, is reportedly aimed at “minimizing threats” to US security.
Exactly what the really entails, nobody knows.
According to the report, agents working undercover in the “signature reduction” program, developed by the Pentagon over the past 10 years, are engaged in online as well as real life assignments and are often soldiers, civilians and contractors who evade detection with false identities.
In fact, the situation makes the structure “the biggest secret force the world has ever seen.”
North Korea, Russia and Iran are believed to be just some of the counties seen as hostile to the US where the agents are working, the report said.
But some allege that the group has participated in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media.
Some intelligence experts say such an initiative could contravene America’s domestic laws and, possibly go against the military code of conduct and the Geneva Convention of Human Rights.
One intelligence officer, who was not named, said the army operates in “signature reduction,” although the term is not officially recognized by the Department of Defense.
A former agency chief told Newsweek signature reduction describes the “twilight zone” between covert and undercover.
This means the activities of the secret army don’t need the sign-off of politicians or official law enforcement bodies.
The cutting-edge biometric technology relied on by the secret army is provided by the CIA and the NSA, whose spying and hacking tech is used by American spies daily.
A WikiLeaks IT wizard told the magazine this technology can be used to edit countries’ immigration databases to authenticate fake passports.
He said: “Imagine for a moment that someone is going through passport control. NSA or the CIA is tasked to corrupt—change—the data on the day the covert asset goes through.
“And then switch it back. It’s not impossible.”
In its heyday, the KGB ran a similar secret operative army, although much smaller, within its own intelligence services.
The identities of these agents was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the Kremlin’s vast spy network.
According to the report, more than half of this secret Pentagon army is engaged as special operations forces.
They pursue terrorists in countries like Pakistan and West Africa. Some could even be deployed behind the borders of North Korea and Iran — two countries that are direct adversaries of America.
The other wing is of military intelligence specialists who are collectors, counter intelligence agents, and linguists. They’re deployed with a cover identity to protect them.
This secret army also has a small, but a growing cyber intelligence wing. Sitting behind their computers, they hunt for high value targets using information in the public domain.
It also reportedly includes a “Special Access Programmes (SAP)” section which contains secrets about the tools and methods used to trick foreign security systems’ fingerprinting and facial recognition components.
Apparently, a company based in North Carolina trains the agents in how to change their age and appearance using simple disguises and can equip them with a silicone sleeve that allows them to alter their fingerprints.
While these Pentagon agents work largely in the shadows, Newsweek pointed to the case of Ryan Fogle as an example of when things go wrong.
Fogle is an alleged CIA agent who was caught red-handed in Russia for trying to recruit a Russian intelligence officer.
Footage of Fogle being berated by plain-clothes FSB (Federal Security Service) interrogators was released to Russian television channels in May 2013, along with photos and video footage of a bizarrely old-school array of spying tools, including two wigs, a compass, a map of Moscow and a stack of €500 notes.
At the time, the US State Department confirmed one of its agents had been detained, but refused to be drawn into Russian claims.
Luckily for Fogle, he was only held overnight before being released to US officials. He returned to the US shortly after.
Meanwhile, asked this week, if the Newsweek reports are “real,” Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby replied: “I’ve seen the article, I can’t go beyond that. I’ve … I’ve read the article, I don’t have additional context to provide on it right now.”