Editor's note: This story does not contain any identifying details of undercover officers from law enforcement agencies or agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. Instead, it includes aggregate numbers of confidential licenses issued by the state of Washington to local, state and federal agencies. This is consistent with what the Washington Department of Licensing has proposed to release under pending legislation in Olympia.
OLYMPIA, Wash. – In recent years, the state of Washington has issued nearly 300 fictitious driver licenses to the CIA. That's according to public records initially disclosed, but now withheld, by state officials. The state’s cooperation with the nation's premier spy agency has been a secret for years -- unknown to lawmakers and even the governor.
Inside Washington’s Department of Licensing is a special office called the License Integrity Unit. This is where police officers who are going undercover can come to get a fake identity. It’s a valid Washington driver license, but with a fictitious name, birthdate and address. It’s known as the confidential driver license program. It’s operated for decades, but without legislative approval.
“It’s not really been a formal program," says Agency spokesman Brad Benfield. "But the practice of issuing law enforcement officers these types of licenses appears to go back to the 80s.”
This year the Department of Licensing is asked the legislature to give it formal permission to continue the program. The agency introduced legislation that’s moving through the process. Last month, reporter Josh Farley of The Kitsap Sun and I asked for a list of the agencies that have received these fictitious driver licenses.
Benfield showed us the list, but he said he couldn’t give it to us just yet.
Immediately, one agency jumped off the page. The CIA. I asked Benfield if I was seeing it right.
“That is CIA,” he replied.
Not only that, the CIA had obtained by far the greatest number of confidential driver licenses of any agency – local, state or federal: 288 since 2007.
“It does surprise me, it does intrigue me,” says State Representative Jason Overstreet, a Republican who serves on the House Transportation committee.
“Why did the CIA asked for and received 288 Washington state identifications? It seems like a big number,” he says.
In an emailed response, a CIA spokesman had “no comment.” But Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Weiner says it’s not terribly surprising. Weiner authored the acclaimed book “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.”
“A CIA officer who works overseas needs a cover,” Weiner explains.
As in a cover identity. That means false name, false passport, and yes, a false driver license. Weiner says the CIA could theoretically make its own IDs.
“But it’s so much easier to get the State Department to issue a phony passport and to get the state of Washington to issue phony driver licenses,” he says.
They may be phony, but they’re real licenses. But why Washington? Because, says Weiner, the state offers this service. But he also observes that Washington is home to several global companies like Boeing and Microsoft and related industries.
“If you’re going to do intelligence work in Japan or Korea or any one of the major countries where we have intelligence interests in Asia it would be pretty good cover to be an Asian American software salesman who lives in the greater Seattle area,” Weiner says.
Another national security expert and author, William Arkin, who co-authored the "Top Secret America" series in the Washington Post, says the CIA's use of Washington's confidential license program reveals how meticulous the Agency is in establishing a cover for its officers.
"This is a story that's interesting to me because it ... gives you an insight into the way that this secret world that we pay for works," said Arkin in an interview from his home in Vermont.
Both Arkin and Weiner emphasize that if the state is going to cooperate with the nation's spy agency, the program needs to be legal and have oversight. "A program like this needs adult supervision and it cannot be an informal, traditional relationship, it needs to be codified," says Weiner.
The Washington Department of Licensing won’t say when it started cooperating with the CIA. In fact, since the agency first showed us the list with the CIA on it, its managers have reversed course. After a lengthy delay, we finally received a list of the state and local agencies that have these confidential driver licenses. But all the federal agencies were lumped together under a single heading: federal law enforcement -- with no mention of the CIA whatsoever.
In a statement, agency director Teresa Berntsen says: “Commenting any further on these issues would subject DOL and our employees to legal liability on the federal level and could put officers and agents at risk.”
State Representative Jason Overstreet doesn’t accept that answer.
“I think that the public demands a response," he says. "Not classified information that would compromise officer safety but why the large numbers?”
Overstreet supports allowing the confidential driver license program to continue with legislative oversight and additional safeguards. But even lawmakers may have trouble getting details. The Department of Licensing says federal law -- it won’t say which law -- and nondisclosure agreements prohibit the agency from sharing any information about its relationship with the feds.
As for the CIA, that may become a moot point. The proposed law to allow the confidential license program to continue says the IDs are only for undercover law enforcement. Author and CIA expert Tim Weiner says that should automatically disqualify the CIA.
“By statute the CIA is not a law enforcement agency," he says. "On the contrary the CIA’s principle purpose is to violate the laws of a foreign country and commit espionage overseas.”
A mission Washington state has apparently aided without the knowledge of even the governor. Former two term Governor Chris Gregoire – through a spokesperson – says she was unaware of the state’s confidential driver license program. Or that Washington IDs were going to the CIA. Current Governor Jay Inslee was unaware too until recently when he was briefed on the program because of the pending legislation.
Oregon operates a similar confidential driver’s license program. It released a list of federal agencies that have obtained them, but that list did not include the CIA.
This report was in collaboration with The Kitsap Sun newspaper.