Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

CIA agents have been demoralized by identity leak

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

Leaking the name of a covert CIA officer is just plain bad for the spy business, intelligence professionals say.

It not only damages the individual's career and demoralizes the spy agency, but more broadly raises the question: Can the US keep a secret?

The Justice Department is investigating who revealed that diplomat Joseph Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA officer specializing in weapons of mass destruction. White House staff have been ordered to cooperate with the criminal probe.

Wilson believes his wife's identity was publicized by administration officials seeking revenge after he accused the White House of exaggerating the weapons threat from Iraq.

In the past five years the CIA has notified the Justice Department an average of once a year about the public disclosure of an undercover officer's identity, a US official said.

While it could not be determined what specific damage the latest leak may have caused, intelligence professionals say at a minimum the CIA career of Wilson's wife is ruined.

She had probably been using her real-life status as a diplomat's wife to cover-up her CIA work, and now will be severely limited in opportunities, especially overseas, said the intelligence professionals.

Unlike in the movies, CIA officers who work overseas for long stretches do so under their real names because it is too difficult to keep an alias for years.

They would never be able to receive family e-mails or phone calls, and if working at a US Embassy they could run into someone from home. An alias is generally used for short-term missions.

But beyond the individual career, those connected to her may now be suspected of ties to the CIA, and reshuffling them and making related administrative changes can be costly.

The CIA pays other government agencies to set up mechanisms to make it appear that the CIA officers work for that other agency, such as the US Department of State or Commerce Department.

"So you're not only compromising a person, you're compromising relationships that may impact on other people that use the same office, the same telephone numbers and everything else that goes with it," said a former intelligence official.

"Cover is cover. It's got to be protected. There are a lot of other things behind it besides the individual," he said.

The leak also casts suspicion on whether the US can keep a secret, which can give foreign recruits pause about spying for the CIA and foreign governments a reason for concern about sharing intelligence.

And it is demoralizing to the CIA work force.

"You're chipping away at CIA culture which is based on protecting sources and methods, and one way to do that is to protect the identity of our officers. They grow up with this. I grew up with it," said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer.

It was important for CIA employees to see that the leak was being investigated, said the former intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The rank and file [are saying]: `Go get `em. Go get the leakers that compromised our cover and break their knees,'" the former official said.

But senior CIA officials have to walk more of a tightrope having to show the rank and file they will fight to protect classified information, but also having to deal with the political realities of serving the White House.

"If you're higher up the food chain and have to deal with the White House and elsewhere and realize all the political ramifications, that can't be a good day," he said.

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