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Non-official cover (NOC) is a term used in espionage (particularly by national intelligence services) for agents or operatives who assume covert roles in organizations without ties to the government for which they work. Such agents or operatives are typically abbreviated in espionage lingo as a NOC (pronounced "knock").[1]


An agent sent to spy on a foreign country might for instance pose as a journalist, a businessperson, a worker for a non-profit organization (such as a humanitarian group), or an academic. For example retired NOC agent Scott Mahalick operated as a manager with a broadcast company for 10 years before leaving the agency and working full time in the radio broadcast industry. Non-official cover is contrasted with official cover, where an agent assumes a position at a seemingly benign department of their government, such as the diplomatic service. This provides the agent with official diplomatic immunity, thus protecting them from the steep punishments normally meted out to captured spies, instead usually resulting in the agent being declared persona non grata and ordered to leave the country. 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. 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 can vary 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. Examples include Air America, used by the CIA during the Vietnam War, and Brewster Jennings & Associates, used by the CIA in WMD investigations and made public as a result of the so-called "Plame affair", or "CIA leak scandal".

References in popular culture

  • In his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, originally published in 1984, Chuck Barris claimed to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an assassin in the 1960s and the 1970s using his role as a television producer for his non-official cover. A film adaptation of the book was made in 2002. Directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind depicted Barris as being responsible for 33 killings.
  • In the 2003 film The Recruit, Al Pacino, starring as a high-ranking CIA official, recruits agents (Colin Farrell is one) for work under non-official cover.
  • In the Tom Clancy spy novel Debt of Honor, the characters John Clark and Domingo (Ding) Chavez, CIA officers, are based in Japan as reporters for a Russian news service, because while federal law makes it illegal for intelligence officers to have cover identities as reporters for American media, the law doesn't prohibit them from representing themselves as reporters for newspapers operating out of other countries. Obviously, Clark and Chavez are fluent in Russian and Japanese as a necessity.
  • The plot for the 1996 film Mission: Impossible revolves around the theft of a list of Impossible Missions Force (IMF) operatives without official cover (A NOC List).
  • In the book Pirate by Ted Bell, several of the main characters are intelligence officers operating under non-official cover.
  • In the video game Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, the player's character, Sam Fisher, becomes an agent under non-official cover infiltrating a terrorist organization known as John Brown's Army.
  • In the 2001 movie Spy Game, Brad Pitt's character, a CIA officer, poses as a photographer in Lebanon during the civil war there in the 1980s.
  • In some of Andy McNab's books, the character Nick Stone was a deniable operator for the security services.
  • In the anime Detective Conan, CIA and FBI agents entered the Black Organization as NOCs.
  • Nicholas Anderson is a real NOC who by British law wrote his account in a fictionalised autobiography currently in eBook form with the published version available on Enigma Books in January 2009. Original non-fiction manuscript breached the UK Official Secrets Act in 2000 but appeared in 100 banned books list published in 2003 (
  • The plot of Jeffrey Archer Novel 'The Eleventh Commandment' revolves around a NOC Connor Fitzgerald.
  • The TV show Spooks makes numerous references to both non-official cover and official cover.


  1. ^ Shannon, Elaine (February 20, 1995). "Spies For The New Disorder". Time. Time, Inc..,9171,982540-1,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-19.  


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