Ex-CIA agents differ on import of outing Plame
Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer
When Larry Johnson heard from a friend that Valerie Plame, an old classmate from his CIA training class, had been identified in a newspaper column as a CIA operative, his first reaction was shock.
"I was furious," said Johnson, who left the CIA in 1989 for the U.S. State Department's Office of Counterterrorism and now runs a business consulting firm. His growing sense that Plame was outed for the political benefit of the White House has only heightened his sense of outrage. "People ought to be fired, lose their jobs and face prosecution," he said.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service who is now a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, had a different reaction.
Washington, D.C., he thought, was being Washington, D.C.
"I don't think the relay of just that name, given the circumstances, is such a serious thing," he said. "That kind of thing has happened innumerable times with journalists. This has really been blown egregiously out of proportion.''
Those extremes define the range of reaction to the Plame revelation within the shadow world of CIA spooks, as described by those who have left that realm for a life in which people can talk about such things.
Reactions hinged largely on how seriously the former operatives took Plame's position within the clandestine community when Robert Novak identified her.
The CIA had sent Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from the West African nation. Wilson later publicly criticized the White House's use of those claims -- since discredited -- in the months leading to the war in Iraq. Shortly thereafter, Novak identified Plame as Wilson's wife, leading to a two-year investigation into whether a top White House aide leaked the agent's identity to the journalist - and whether doing so was a crime.
As Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald pursued his investigation Thursday into those questions, the same debate echoed through the intelligence community.
For some, the question boiled down to whether or not a law had been broken -- specifically, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which bars those with access to classified information from knowingly revealing the identity of a covert agent.
"If (the leaker) knew for a fact that this person was undercover and was operating undercover, he should have his legs broken," said Andre LeGallo, a former senior intelligence officer with the CIA directorate of operations and president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
"If he said it like, 'I think (Wilson's) wife works in the agency,' without knowing if she's in science or technology or a logistics expert, that's a pretty tough call," LeGallo said. "I frankly don't see anybody going to jail -- it's too difficult to prove that law (was broken)."
For other former operatives, the idea that the law was open to question was an indication of a bigger problem.
"If they're going to say this law is not sufficient in such a blatant example of exposing somebody's cover, then the law needs to be rewritten," said Melissa Boyle Mahle, who wrote about her experience as a clandestine CIA operative in her memoir, "Denial and Deception."
Mahle said the exposure of Plame's identity could shake the covert universe, especially agents working overseas without official cover in embassies -- the so-called nonofficial cover operatives, or NOCs. Many intelligence experts say the CIA needs to recruit and retain more of these agents to address the problem of weak on-the-ground intelligence exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.
"These folks do not have 'get out of jail free' cards. ... They don't have diplomatic immunity," Mahle said. "It touches lives, not only your ability to do your job, but also it places your family in danger -- it places your lives in danger."
George Friedman, who heads the private intelligence firm Stratfor, argued in an Oct. 17 essay to his company's subscribers that these sorts of agents are critical to modern intelligence collection and that government officials have a responsibility to reassure them their covers will not be blown.
Not only were White House officials not supposed to confirm or deny a current or former NOC's identity to a reporter, Friedman wrote, their job was to "lie like crazy" to mislead the reporter.
"Imagine, if you will, working in Damascus as a NOC and reading that the president's chief adviser had confirmed the identity of a NOC," he wrote. "As you push into middle age, wondering what happened to your life, the sudden realization that your own government threatens your safety might convince you to resign and go home."
Johnson compared an agent's cover to the protective gear used by firefighters.
"If you strip off the coat, the hats and the boots, and you ask them to go fight the fire, they're going to be at risk." Agents, he said, "saw this as a warning shot across their bow -- don't get jammed up or crossways on politics with these folks because they'll expose you in a heartbeat."
However, Gerecht, the former case officer, suggested that the Sturm und Drang among current and former clandestine agents over Plame's identification is a kind of self-aggrandizing smoke screen, pumping up the intelligence community's value while distracting from its failures.
In fact, he argued, any overseas contacts or sensitive information Plame had must have been thin and old by the time of Wilson's trip -- otherwise, he said, why would the CIA have handed her husband such a high-profile mission, then permitted him to write publicly about it?
"If a senior official had revealed to a journalist that Mr. Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and got him that job, I would not consider that a punishable offense," he said. "I would find it in fact sort of obligatory, given the nature of this case and given how critical Valerie Plame was to understanding what made (the controversy over Wilson) tick."
However, even among Plame and Wilson's critics, most former operatives did not dispute the idea that knowingly leaking an active NOC's name should bear significant, even criminal, consequences.
The question was whether Plame's specific case violated that rule.
"It can't be ambiguous that outing a covert agent is a major big deal," said Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "It would be terrible if people in the great wide world out there mistook the challenge of the evidence ... with whether it's actually a serious offense."
That said, McCarthy sided with those who argue that Plame's identity was hardly sensitive, citing her regular presence in Washington, court filings he said suggested her identity was known to the Russians and Cubans in the 1990s, and Plame's appearance with Wilson in a two-page Vanity Fair photo spread after Novak's column ran.
In that case, McCarthy said, outing Plame might not be a criminal offense at all but was still a political offense that should bear political consequences.
"There's a need to fire people who leak classified information, no matter who they are, whether they work in the White House or for the intelligence community," he said.
E-mail Matt Stannard at email@example.com.
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