The rare firing last week of a CIA officer accused of leaking information to the news media stems both from the sensitivity of the subjects she allegedly discussed and the Bush administration's forceful efforts to block national security disclosures that have proved embarrassing or caused operational problems, according to current and former intelligence officials.
The use of polygraphs to force out the CIA officer, a historian and Africa specialist named Mary McCarthy who lately has been working for the agency's internal inspector, comes amid long-standing administration suspicions that employees of the spy agency have not sufficiently toed the policy line set by the White House on matters such as the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Several former are a threat to senior intelligence officials said yesterday they could not recall a similar sanction being levied against a serving CIA officer in the past several decades, although they said they would have supported such an action if the agency had been able to trace a leak of a similar nature back to its source.
Many agents back firing
A majority of CIA officers would probably "find the action taken [against McCarthy] correct," said a former senior intelligence official who said he had discussed the matter with former colleagues in the past day. "A small number might support her, but the ethic of the business is not to" leak, and instead to express one's dissenting views through internal grievance channels.
To some analysts, the firing is also a sign of unprecedented pressures on officials not to have contacts with the media outside of authorized channels where they convey approved messages. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said that "the administration's general attitude is that leaks (compromise) national security and have to be not just jawboned but seriously investigated as crimes."
The CIA said in a statement last week that omitted McCarthy's name that the officer was fired for discussing operational intelligence matters with journalists. Officials have said the journalists included Washington Post correspondent Dana Priest, who last week was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for national security reporting that included the revelation of secret, CIA-run prisons for suspected terrorists in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
The Post withheld the names of the countries from its account at the administration's request. The article attributed its information to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents.
Few knew delicate information
CIA officials, without confirming the information in the article, have said the disclosure harmed the agency's relations with unspecified foreign intelligence services. "The consequences of this leak were more serious than other leaks," said a former intelligence official in touch with senior agency officials. "That's what inspired this [firing]." Others pointed out that the information in question was known by so few people that the number of suspected leakers was fairly small, enabling investigators to work swiftly.
The Washington Post was not asked to cooperate in the investigation and has not been subpoenaed or approached for information. McCarthy, who formerly helped oversee intelligence operations as a senior official of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, did not return phone calls yesterday, and no one answered the doorbell at her home.
McCarthy held various jobs in more than two decades at the agency, and at one point was its most senior analyst for "warning," assigned to anticipate security threats. According to a government commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she expressed concern about the quality of intelligence linking Osama bin Laden to a chemical factory in Sudan that U.S. warplanes later attacked. But her last job at the CIA was in the office of Inspector General John L. Helgerson, who has a unique status at the agency.
Extraordinary access to secrets
After revelations in the 1980s about questionable CIA activities, the inspector general's appointment was subjected to Senate approval for the first time, to confer a measure of independence. Moreover, as the person singularly responsible for sensitive internal investigations of alleged wrongdoing at the agency, the inspector general is routinely granted extraordinary access to secrets ordinarily not shared with others inside the CIA.
The inspector general's combination of independence and access may have been combustible in McCarthy's case, if allegations about her involvement in leaks prove true. Since the revelation in 2004 of prisoner abuses by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the CIA inspector general's office was charged with examining allegations of torture and other ill treatment of detainees by CIA officers and contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The allegations arose, according to sources, from complaints made by others within the agency about wrongdoing.
The resulting reports have never been made public, although the agency has confirmed that it submitted several requests for prosecution of CIA-related employees to the Justice Department. Only one trial has resulted, in North Carolina, involving a CIA contractor.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism expert who worked briefly for McCarthy at the CIA in 1988, said yesterday that if McCarthy were really involved in leaks, she may have concluded that the investigation was "a whitewash, and why not tell the press? . . . I am struck by the irony that Mary McCarthy may have been fired for blowing the whistle and ensuring the truth about an abuse was told to the American people."
Leaks a reaction to Bush policies?
Whatever the motivation in this case, intelligence officials confirmed that the leaks apparently at issue now occurred at a time of extraordinary ferment within the intelligence community about the propriety of some Bush administration policies. Several former CIA officials, including the head of its operations in Europe and one of its top Middle East analysts, have recently publicly described what they see as bitterness within the agency about allegations that the administration misused intelligence resources and reports in connection with the war.
A former intelligence official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he knew of CIA officials who had refused to attend meetings related to the rendition -- or capture and transfer -- of suspected terrorists, because of opposition or anxiety about the legality of the practice. "They believe that if one chamber of Congress goes to the other party, there will be investigations, and those involved could be impoverished by legal fees."
Other sources described mixed initial reactions inside the agency to the disclosure of McCarthy's firing: a widespread condemnation that an intelligence officer was allegedly involved in leaking classified information, in clear violation of CIA rules, coupled with frustration at the set of events that may have provoked it.
‘Nowhere else to go’ but media
Several sources who know her said they were disappointed. Others were sympathetic, saying many feel frustrated by a lack of debate over policies on the treatment of detainees that are seen as radical by many officers. "They're thinking Mary had nowhere else to go," said one former official who would only discuss the issue on the condition of anonymity.
Richard Kerr, a deputy director of the CIA from 1989 to 1992 who worked with McCarthy at one point, described her as "a good, solid intelligence officer," based on his own experience. "She is not a firebrand kind of ideologue," he said, adding, "I don't know her motivation in this case." In his experience, Kerr said, "nearly all senior officers at some time want to take a complaint somewhere else."
But they have several options, Kerr said. "You can quit, stay inside and fight or use the appeal mechanism inside." The formal mechanisms sometimes are not effective, he said, and "this one way [leaking to the press] is a high-risk one." Kerr added, however, that in his view, the CIA cannot allow leaks to go unpunished, because "your discipline breaks down."
Several former intelligence officials said they were particularly alarmed about McCarthy's alleged involvement in any leaks because of where she worked at the CIA. L. Britt Snyder III, who was CIA inspector general from 1997 to 2000, said if McCarthy leaked information while working in the IG office, "we would have considered that a fairly egregious sin." The IG, he said, "gets into everything, including personal things. That makes it a little different than other places."
Not a new phenomenon
Leaks of classified information to the media have been a familiar fixture in Washington, albeit more commonly when politically controversial information is circulated among officials of multiple government agencies or branches of government. "We've lost all sense of discipline" about leaks, then-Secretary of State George Shultz complained in 1986 shortly after firing a speechwriter for leaking a classified cable from the U.S. embassy in Argentina. That year also saw the firing of a senior defense official who failed a polygraph test regarding leaks to the media about missile sales to rebels in Afghanistan.
More recently, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, has become embroiled in controversy over his disclosure to reporters in 2003 of information from a previously classified intelligence report about Iraq. Libby said the disclosure was authorized by Cheney and Bush, but asked to be identified as a "former Hill staffer" when the reporters described their source.
Since Bush appointed a Republican ally and former lawmaker, Porter J. Goss, to replace George J. Tenet as the agency's chief in September 2005, Goss has repeatedly criticized the media for writing about sensitive intelligence matters and called for reporters to be forced to reveal their sources to grand juries. He personally oversaw the leak investigation that led to McCarthy's dismissal, rather than asking the Justice Department to do it -- as previous directors had requested in similar probes.
Shortening the leash
Even the agency's employment policies have changed: Applicants are now asked more aggressively whether they have any friends in the news media, several agency employees said. And the hurdles to making public statements persist for those who have left: Former CIA agents report that the agency's process for reviewing what they write about current events has recently become lengthier and more difficult.
The White House also has recently barraged the agency with questions about the political affiliations of some of its senior intelligence officers, according to intelligence officials.
No decision has been announced on whether McCarthy might face further repercussions, such as a criminal prosecution. That decision would be made by the Justice Department, and would force a trial that several former intelligence officials said could wind up airing sensitive information as well as policy dissents.
Staff writers Walter Pincus, Al Kamen, Howard Kurtz and Dan Morse, and research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.