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In espionage, agents under non-official cover (NOC) are operatives who assume covert roles in organizations without official ties to the government for which they work. Such agents or operatives are typically abbreviated in espionage lingo as a NOC (pronounced // NOK). These agents are also known as "illegals" (see Clandestine HUMINT operational techniques). Non-official cover is contrasted with official cover, where an agent assumes a position at an otherwise benign department of their government, such as the diplomatic service. This provides the agent with official diplomatic immunity, thus protecting them if their espionage activities are discovered.
Agents under non-official cover do not have this "safety net", and if captured or charged they are subject to severe criminal punishments, up to and including execution. Agents under non-official cover are also usually trained to deny any connection with their government, thus preserving plausible deniability, but also denying them any hope of diplomatic legal assistance or official acknowledgment of their service. Sometimes, entire front companies or strawman entities are established in order to provide false identities for agents.
An agent sent to spy on a foreign country might, for instance, work as a businessperson, a worker for a non-profit organization (such as a humanitarian group), or an academic. For example, the CIA's Ishmael Jones spent nearly two decades as a NOC.
Many of the agents memorialized without names or dates of service on the CIA Memorial Wall are assumed to have been killed or executed in a foreign country while serving as NOC agents. In nations with established and well-developed spy agencies, the majority of captured non-native NOC agents have, however, historically been repatriated through prisoner exchanges for other captured NOCs as a form of gentlemen's agreement.
Some countries have regulations regarding the use of non-official cover: the CIA, for example, has at times been prohibited from disguising agents as members of certain aid organizations, or as members of the clergy.
The degree of sophistication put into non-official cover stories varies considerably. Sometimes, an agent will simply be appointed to a position in a well-established company which can provide the appropriate opportunities. Other times, entire front companies can be established in order to provide false identities for agents.
Former MI6 officer "Nicholas Anderson" wrote an account of his service in a fictionalized autobiography (as per British law) entitled NOC: Non-Official Cover: British Secret Operations, and two sequels: NOC Twice: More UK Non-Official Cover Operations and NOC Three Times: Knock-On Effect (Last of the Trilogy).
Michael Ross, a former Mossad officer, operated as a Mossad NOC or "combatant" as described in his memoir, The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists (Skyhorse Publishing, September 2007, ISBN 978-1-60239-132-1).
Fictional examples include Chuck Barris who made a satirical claim to have been a NOC with 33 kills in his book and movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Other examples are featured in the books Debt of Honor, Ted Bell's Pirate, and The Eleventh Commandment; in the movies Mission: Impossible, Spy Game, The Bourne Identity, Safe House, and The Recruit; and the TV shows The Americans, Burn Notice, Spooks, Covert Affairs and Patriot.
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- John Weisman (September 7, 2010). "Tripping Over CIA's Bureaucratic Hurdles". Washington Times. Retrieved 2010-03-19.
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- "Our Kind of Traitor: an interview with former MI6 intelligence officer Nicholas Anderson". historyextra.com. Immediate Media Company. May 11, 2016. Retrieved February 21, 2018.