Marc Ambinder

Outing the CIA's station chief in Kabul was a blunder, not a crime

The serving chief of station for the CIA's massive Kabul base was outed this weekend, and ceremoniously so. As you've probably read by now, a White House press liaison traveling with President Obama on his secret trip to Afghanistan sent the designated pool reporter, Scott Wilson, a list of American officials Obama would be meeting with during the visit.

The list included the name of the CIA's chief of station, a serving undercover intelligence officer, along with his title, "Chief of Station."

It is not a felony to disclose the name of a serving CIA officer. It is a felony to knowingly and without authorization disclose the name of a serving CIA case officer. After muckraking journalists and internal critics began to publish the names of case officers in the turbulent 1970s, the CIA convinced Congress to write a new law officially imposing criminal penalties, in the words of the Congressional Research Service,

for the intentional, unauthorized disclosure of information identifying a covert agent with knowledge that the information identifies a covert agent as such and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal the covert agent's foreign intelligence relationship to the United States. Covert agents include officers and employees of a U.S. intelligence agency

Predictably, as soon as this blunder was uncovered, critics of the White House's secrecy policies began to wonder aloud who would get prosecuted for the leak, comparing it to the Bush-era outing of serving CIA officer Valerie Plame, the cover-up around which led to an expensive special investigation and a conviction against Vice President Cheney's then chief-of-staff for misleading investigators. The ramifications of the Plame leak seem to have been fairly grave for a number of vital ongoing intelligence operations.

The ramifications here, at least from the outset, are not as bad. Station chiefs of major CIA stations are generally known, at least by name, often by sight, to rival intelligence agencies almost from the get-go. Certainly, the station chief, in working with a number of different agencies in Afghanistan, would have to accept that his degree of freedom to control his cover is probably tiny at this point. When the CIA appoints chiefs of stations, the agency generally understands and accepts the risk that the identity, and perhaps the person's cover history, might be exposed. Occasionally, this can lead to compromised operations, although generally, enough time has elapsed between these officers having actively run agents and operations (as opposed to having managed them) that the risk is — again, to the use the word — acceptable. The more dangerous consequence is not so much that rival spooks figure out the name of the CIA's man or woman in a certain country. It's that the country or targeted entity can use this information to pin a target on the person's back, which is exactly what elements of the Pakistani government did during a dispute about drones and intelligence-sharing a few years back.

There may well be a criminal reference to the Justice Department here by the White House, just to avoid the impression that they treat classified information disclosures cavalierly or have different standards for their own flock. Unfortunately, the chain of events does not make it likely that anyone would ever be brought to trial. It appears that the U.S. military just copied and pasted a list of meeting attendees that itself should have been formally classified (because it included the identity of a classified agent) but was not, because of the haste of the trip, and someone in the White House press office simply didn't read the list with an eye for that very obvious land mine. The disclosure, practically, was "authorized."

Embarrassing? Yes. Worthy of an investigation? Yes. A chance for critics of the White House to gloat? Yes. A crime? No.

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