A Criminal Organization is a collection of criminals or terrorists working loosely affiliated together under a single name. Most of the agents encountered in a Mission in Covert Action belong to one of the Criminal Organizations.
There are exactly 26 Criminal Organizations in Covert Action. Each Criminal Organization appears in at least one specific Theatre of Operations. Each Criminal Organization has a Hideout in each and every City in the Theatres where it appears, though their specific locations may or may not be known to Max initially.
Each Criminal Organization has exactly one Mastermind, with a fixed name and location. Capturing the Mastermind will put him in jail permanently, and he/she is never replaced. The ultimate objective of the game is to arrest the Masterminds of each of the 26 Criminal Organizations.
In Covert Action, each mission you play revolves around an attempt by the Mastermind of a Criminal Organization to perform some type of crime (a Plot). That Mastermind employs a number of agents, possibly from his own or other Criminal Organizations to help him achieve his goals. It is Max's job to thwart that Plot, and hopefully to arrest the Mastermind behind it.
Each Criminal Organization appears in either one or two Theatres of Operation. For example, the Stasi appears in the European theatre and the African theatre, but not in the American theatre. Agents belonging to the organization will only ever appear in those theatres.
Each City on the map in the current theatre will have one Hideout belonging to each of the Criminal Organizations operating in that theatre. Most will probably be hidden at mission-start, but Max can potentially discover all of them, though this is virtually never required.
The Affiliation of each agent is, for the most part, randomly-selected at the start of the mission, from the list of Criminal Organizations available in the current Theatre of Operations. Therefore, a Plot can contain Participants from any Criminal Organization, not necessarily just from the one that's running the show (the Mastermind's organization). In fact, it is possibly for each Participant to belong to a different organization.
Criminal Organizations may also field one or more Red Herring Agents. These agents do not participate in the Plot - they are there to confuse the player, who might waste time investigating their involvement only to reach a dead end. Again, any Criminal Organization can field either none or as many as allowed.
Each Criminal Organization has exactly one Mastermind, whose name, face and location remain constant throughout the entire game.
Once a Mastermind from any Criminal Organization is chosen by the game to lead the next Criminal Plot, she will in fact lead all subsequent Plots until Max can arrest her. Occasionally the CIA Chief will give Max some more information about the Mastermind between missions, to help locate her (assuming Max doesn't already have all the information and has simply not made the Arrest yet).
Arresting a Mastermind is permanent. That specific Mastermind will no longer appear in the game (except on Max's accomplishments file). The Organization to which that Mastermind belonged will not acquire a new Mastermind for the rest of the game, and will therefore no longer head any more Plots.
In fact, if all Masterminds are arrested, the game is essentially over, since no Criminal Organization is capable of conducting any more plots. This is your overall objective in a game of Covert Action.
Difference between Criminal OrganizationsEdit
As mentioned above, there are exactly 26 Criminal Organizations in a game of Covert Action.
There are several differences between each organization. Each only appears in some Theatres of Operation and not in others. Each is allied and/or associated with a different set of other Organizations, and each has their own Mastermind.
However, in essense there is no difference in the behavior of each organization in the game. They are pretty much interchangeable in many respects. They do not treat Max any differently, and it is not easier or harder to capture agents from any specific organization. Also, any organization can lead or participate in any Plot, regardless of which other organizations are also participating.
Theatres of OperationEdit
Each Organization will only appear in one or at most two of the available Theatres of Operation in the game. All organizations belonging to the current Theatre will have a Hideout in each city in that theatre, though the actual location of each hideout may not be known at the start of each mission.
If an Organization does not appear in the current Theatre you're playing, you will not meet any of their Agents nor their Mastermind.
Allies and AssociatesEdit
Each Criminal Organization is either Allied or Associated with a number of other Criminal Organizations. The actual number of alliances varies from Plot to Plot.
The significance of these relationships is rather small. For the most part, it governs whether data about the activities and agents of one organization can be located in the Hideouts of another organization. For example, if the PFO is allied with the PRC during the current Plot, and we're looking for data about a PFO agent, we might be able to find it in a PRC office - especially in Terminals. The opposite will also be true in this case (finding info about a PRC agent in a PFO office).
This is influenced heavily by the chosen Difficulty level. At lower difficulties, this has little to no relevance, as you can find information about agents almost anywhere, regardless of alliances and associations.
Another important effect is when trying to locate the Hideouts of an organization in a specific city. You can watch a Hideout belonging to one of that organization's allies, and have a much greater chance of spotting (whether randomly or through face identification) the correct agent coming out of that building and follow him to his own Hideout.
Also, Participants in the current plot are more likely to be affiliated to an organization that's allied or associated with the one leading the plot (I.E. the plot Mastermind's organization). However, this isn't always the case.