WASHINGTON - In the shadowy world of the espionage, where the truth can endanger lives, the recent leaking of a CIA operative's name has left the intelligence community feeling enraged, bitter and betrayed.
For CIA officials who put their lives at risk to serve their country, accepting a very different, very strict code of conduct under which their families are often kept in the dark about their work, the alleged leak has come as an unwelcome shock.
As the Justice Department investigates allegations that the White House maliciously leaked the name of a CIA operative, five former CIA officials told ABCNEWS' Nightline the scandal could have far-reaching consequences for American security and the international war on terror.
In an unusual criminal investigation, the Justice Department is probing allegations that the White House revealed the name of a CIA officer after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for war in Iraq.
The CIA agent was named in a column by Robert Novak in July, in what critics say is a breach of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which makes the disclosure of CIA operatives' names a criminal offence.
'Kneecapping a Star Basketball Player'
But quite apart from legal issues, ex-CIA officials warn that this case has raised fears within the agency that taking a position in opposition to the current administration could lead to an agent's outing.
"This was a political act, for
the first time an agency, a clandestine officer was outed
for political reasons," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer. "[It] puts fear in other people who are undercover, that if
you take a position in
opposition to the White House, they'll out you."
"It's kneecapping a star basketball player," said Jim Marcinkowski, a former CIA intelligence officer. "You just can't perform like you did
in the past."
Speaking to Nightline on condition of anonymity, with her voice digitally manipulated to avoid recognition, an undercover intelligence officer said the implications of the leak were grim.
"Just a few months ago, this administration went out of its
way to tell us how important human intelligence is," she said. "We cannot find Saddam Hussein because we have no human intelligence. We cannot find Osama bin Laden because there is no human intelligence. And here you are, you have a case officer who is gathering human intelligence, who is running agents, and here you are exposing her and everyone that she came in contact with."
As an undercover agent, Mrs. Wilson's duties would have included recruiting agents overseas in order to gather human intelligence
the basic, but extremely dangerous brickwork, experts say, of intelligence work.
A Matter of Safety
At a time when Washington is waging a war on terror as anti-U.S. sentiment across the Muslim world has been running at record highs, the leaking, according to Brent Cavan, could spell dangerous times ahead.
"I think it sets a precedent that will make anyone that would consider
working with us think twice about it," warned the former CIA officer. "Money, status or the prestige of working for the U.S. in those capacities won't matter because you'll wind up potentially dead."
In the secretive world of intelligence-gathering that operates above or more accurately, below national laws, safety is a concern that cannot be overestimated.
In an interview with NBC's Meet the Press this weekend, Wilson said he was increasingly concerned about his wife's security posture.
The U.S. government had not offered any security measures, said Wilson, adding that a leading former CIA official had said his wife "was probably the single highest target of any possible terrorist organization or hostile intelligence service that might want to do damage."
But by all accounts, experts say the gravest threats arising from the leaking could be the networks including agents and informers who worked for Mrs. Wilson overseas.
"For folks overseas that may have had an
association with Mrs. Wilson, in certain countries, there is no
real protection of law," said Cavan. "The people that have dealt with Mrs. Wilson could be picked up, interrogated imprisoned or worse and I think that was thought of very lightly here."
Analysts and Undercover Agents
While Mrs. Wilson was an undercover agent, Novak has argued in a subsequent column that the fact that she is currently an analyst does not endanger her security.
But Mike Grimaldi, a former CIA analyst, maintained that when it came to safety, the distinction between working for the CIA as an analyst or an operations officer in the field made little difference.
"In covert operations, as a case officer or operations officer, you're tasked to collect particular information," he explained. "You may not know why you are collecting that, however, an analyst, their job is to look at all of the information, so by definition, an analyst would have more information than perhaps an operations officer, which, in an overseas setting would make them more of a target for hostile intelligence services."
Echoing Grimaldi's view, Caran believed the distinction between an analyst and an operative was theoretical at best and worthless at worse.
"I don't know there is a distinction worth making," he said. "As an analyst, you are still traveling oversees at least for temporary periods of time you need cover to operate effectively."
Politics Is Not the Point
In an election year, the political implications of the leak have received wide attention with Democrats and Republicans have contended that the case could be tainted by politics.
Republicans have charged that Wilson has worked as an unpaid adviser to Sen. John F. Kerry, offering foreign policy advice and speechwriting tips to the Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts. Kerry's advisers have also acknowledged that Wilson has donated $2,000 to his campaign this year.
But on their part, Democrats have noted that Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is overseeing the investigation, has had a long political relationship with President Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove.
According to Wilson, it was Rove who condoned the leak and directed reporters to it after it appeared in Novak's column.
But according to former intelligence officials, the Wilsons were not in breach of any CIA codes of conduct. The issue, they insist, is not politics but a grievous leakage that could have disastrous consequences for the people involved as well as the nation.
"The fact [that] you walk in the front door of the CIA does not mean you lose your political rights in this country," said Grimaldi. "The point is, it shouldn't be an issue for anyone."
The most disturbing issue for former CIA officials who put their lives at stake to serve the nation, often not even telling their families about their work, the latest incident comes as a low blow.
"It's really unfathomable," said Grimaldi. "I never thought in those sorts of terms before, but your own government, your own administration, the people that you are working to protect, come out and throw you out like that, it just it breaks your heart."
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