WASHINGTON — The CIA has fired a senior officer for leaking classified information to news organizations, including material for Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in the Washington Post that said the agency maintained a secret network of prison facilities overseas for high-ranking terror suspects.
The termination, announced Friday, marks the latest in a series of high-profile crackdowns on spy agency and Bush administration officials accused of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
The CIA would not disclose the identity of the fired officer, citing Privacy Act protections. But current and former intelligence officials identified her as Mary O. McCarthy, a former White House aide who until this week held a senior position in the CIA's inspector general's office.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano would say only that an unnamed individual had admitted to having contacts with the press and discussing classified information. "That is a violation of the secrecy agreement that everyone signs as a condition of employment with the CIA," Gimigliano said.
U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to discuss the case, said McCarthy's admission came after she failed a polygraph test conducted as part of several ongoing CIA investigations into leaks. She was fired Thursday and escorted from the agency's campus in Langley, Va., the officials said.
The officials said that McCarthy could face criminal prosecution, and that the Justice Department had been apprised of developments in the internal CIA probes. One U.S. official indicated that she had engaged in a "pattern of contacts" with more than one reporter.
McCarthy has held a series of high-level positions in the intelligence community during a career spanning two decades, according to a short biography posted on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank where she was a visiting fellow in 2001 before returning to intelligence work.
According to the biography, McCarthy served as senior director for intelligence programs at the White House's National Security Council under President Clinton and, until July 2001, for President Bush.
Previously, she held positions with the National Intelligence Council, which formerly was based at the CIA and is responsible for producing assessments on major national security issues.
McCarthy holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota and had taught there; she also worked at Yale University before joining the government.
McCarthy could not be reached for comment Friday.
The rare, but not unprecedented, dismissal is likely to send fresh waves of anxiety through an agency battered in recent years for intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks and erroneous prewar assessments of Iraq. The CIA also has seen a series of high-level officers quit over confrontations with senior aides to Director Porter J. Goss.
During his tenure, Goss has emphasized upholding the CIA's tradition of secrecy — and he often has complained publicly about the damage caused by leaks. In recent congressional testimony, Goss said: "It is my aim, and it is my hope, that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information."
Goss was referring in part to stories in the Post last year that alleged the CIA was operating secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe, where high-value terrorist operatives were being interrogated. On Monday, Post reporter Dana Priest was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for those stories in the beat reporting category.
The stories triggered a fierce reaction in Europe, including investigations into whether governments were secretly cooperating by allowing the CIA to use European facilities and airstrips to detain and transfer prisoners to other countries known to engage in torture.
Disclosures about that program and other operations in recent months, U.S. intelligence officials said, have damaged the United States' ability to win cooperation from European countries and other allies in the fight against terrorism.
"When liaison countries agree to do things with us and we can't keep that secret, that is damaging," said one U.S. official. "They're much less willing to cooperate on a wide range of subjects."
A former senior CIA officer said that Goss sent an e-mail to agency workers Friday, saying the dismissed employee had failed a polygraph test and subsequently admitted to making unauthorized disclosures.
CIA employees are subjected to polygraph examinations every five years as part of routine evaluations for their security clearances. But several officials said McCarthy had been subjected to a "single-issue" polygraph, meaning one specifically conducted to question agency employees about whether they were involved in leaking information that has appeared in the media in recent months.
Several former CIA officers said the agency's internal investigations had focused on lists of employees who were in a position to know details about the agency's detention operations.
Whenever a program is as closely held as the detention operation, said one former CIA officer, staff must sign a special nondisclosure agreement in order to be briefed on the program.
"So there's a list of people who know," one former officer said.
Employees in the CIA's inspector general's office, where McCarthy worked, would have been familiar with some aspects of the detention operations, which the inspector general has reviewed in recent years.
One former senior CIA official said the inspector general's office often was suspected by other agency employees of being the source of many leaks. The "IG's office," as it is known, is an independent, internal watchdog organization with wide latitude to investigate sensitive programs and call attention to problems.
Washington has been racked by a series of high-profile leaks and subsequent investigations in recent years.
The White House recently was forced to acknowledge that Bush — a frequent critic of leaks — had authorized the declassification of sensitive material that was shared with a reporter as part of the administration's effort to rebut criticism of its case for war in Iraq.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, has been indicted as part of a probe into whether administration officials leaked the identity of then-CIA officer Valerie Plame.
And intelligence officials have launched investigations into the source of leaks that Bush had authorized the wiretapping of U.S. residents — without court warrants — as part of the administration's counterterrorism efforts in the wake of Sept. 11.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement Friday praising the CIA's efforts to combat leaks.
"At a time in which intelligence is more important than ever, leaks have hindered our efforts in the war against Al Qaeda," Roberts said. "Those guilty of improperly disclosing classified information should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
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