Plame Throwers

I can recall more than a few moments prior to George W. Bush's presidency that, though seemingly trivial at the time, have since taken on a certain prophetic quality. One such moment came during a July 2000 conversation I had in a European capital with a senior U.S. diplomat of some standing.

Like many veterans of the U.S. Foreign Service, this diplomat had spent most of his career engaged in a delicate dance with CIA personnel, sometimes quite happy to be working with them, other times resenting their actions -- if not their mere presence. But he was, on the whole, favorably disposed toward the agency, having done a few things with its employees that he felt had actually contributed to making the world a better, safer place. While he wasn't sure whether the Clinton administration really understood how to use the CIA in the post-Cold War era, he was sure that the Bill Clinton and Co. had unnecessarily alienated many members of the intelligence community. And this, he said, was one of the reasons he found himself ever-so-slightly inclined toward supporting Bush over Al Gore.

"The Republicans really are grown-ups who have more experience in this area," he said. "They're not going to handle national security and foreign policy any worse, that's for sure."

I can't say for certain what the diplomat's current views are -- he's a busy fellow these days -- but I suspect he's at least reconsidering the notion of certain Republicans as "grown-ups." And there are undoubtedly conservatives out there who wish that the real Republican grown-ups would assert themselves -- that Bush would sack his current crop of neoconservative appointees and improbably coax the likes of Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) out of the Senate and into the executive branch.

Such scenarios, however, seem unlikely in an administration that increasingly makes the Clinton administration -- often derided as government by dorm-room all-nighter -- look positively mature. Which brings us back to the CIA, or, more precisely, to the case of a CIA operative slimed in the latest installment of government-by-spitball.

It's not news that many in the intelligence community aren't favorably disposed to the White House and its ideological adjuncts. But with The Washington Post confirming that someone high up in the Bush administration blew Valerie Plame's cover as a CIA covert operator -- in apparent payback for Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, raining on the administration's Niger "yellowcake" parade -- current and former intelligence officers are growing even more angry and incredulous.

"Monkeying with the analysis process for political purposes is one thing; bad as that is, it isn't anything new, and is almost predictable," says one retired intelligence official. "But our own people blowing the cover of one of our own people? And one of our people who's fighting the good fight?"

Indeed, the fact that Plame's assignment was one of those rare spooky endeavors that almost everyone agrees is laudable -- nuclear-weapons counterproliferation -- has prompted some in the intelligence community to allege that Bush's war on terrorism increasingly looks like a war on those actually fighting the war on terrorism. But what is perhaps most jarring to veteran spies is how the White House's blowing of Plame's cover looks in historical context. While neoconservatives claim to represent the true anti-left, they've put themselves in company that has often included not just elements of the left but foreign interests hostile to U.S. national security.

It was CIA officer-turned-left-wing activist Philip Agee (current residence: Havana, Cuba) who first blew the lid off scores of operation, officer and agent names with the publication of Inside the Company: CIA Diary in 1975. Agee and others continued to publish names with the launching of CounterSpy, the forerunner of Covert Action Information Bulletin and Covert Action Quarterly. (Though some disagree, others are adamant that CounterSpy was responsible for the assassination of the CIA's Athens, Greece, station chief, Richard Welch, in 1975.)

In Dirty Work II: The CIA in Africa, published in 1979, the Covert Action editors disgorged the names of 729 supposed CIA officers operating under diplomatic cover worldwide. In those days, finding CIA officers was not, as the Covert Action editors noted, terribly difficult; even if the tips in "How to Spot a Spook" -- the seminal 1974 article by former State Department intelligence officer John Marks -- didn't prove sufficient, you could still do it through thoughtful reading and cross-referencing of data from the State Department's biographic register and foreign-service list, among other documents.

The 1980s also saw the public -- though, to the average American, all-but-unnoticed -- disclosure of CIA officer names through Soviet efforts. Mixing bona fide diplomats in with actual CIA officers, Soviet books such as Devil and His Dart: How the CIA is Plotting in the Third World and Who's Who in the CIA (originally published in 1968) were circulated in communist countries and the Third World. These books were intended not so much to put CIA officers in danger, but with the more basic intention of undermining U.S. foreign policy. "About half the names listed in that book are real CIA operatives," Ladislav Bittman, a defector from Czechoslovak intelligence, told a congressional committee in 1980 about Who's Who. "The other half are people who were just American diplomats or various officials; and it was prepared with the expectation that naturally many, many Americans operating abroad, diplomats and so on, would be hurt because their names were exposed as CIA officials."

Another such document from the 1980s was the mysterious "Smith List," which contained the names of 463 supposed CIA officers and was delivered in 1985 to a French newsletter with a short note signed by someone claiming to be formerly of the agency. There was also "Spooks in US Foreign Service," a 12-page pamphlet published in Canada in 1983 by the "Anti-CIA Club of Diplomats," an organization of apparently angry career Foreign Service officers claiming that "roughly three out of five supposedly State Department employees working abroad are in fact CIA officers."

Despite their inclusion in any or all of the aforementioned collections, many CIA officers continued to operate in the field for years, including now-notable ex-spooks such as J. Cofer Black, Frank Anderson and Bob Baer, and still-active spies such as the CIA's current deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt. All of which, in the world of intelligence operations, isn't that surprising. Sometimes the case officers operating under diplomatic cover (with diplomatic immunity) who recruit and direct agents are known to their opposites -- their equivalents in other intelligence services -- and usually they run only the risk of getting declared persona non grata by their host country if they get sloppy in handling their charges.

But Plame's case is a little different, in that she appears to have either been a contract agent -- someone paid on a case-by-case basis for specific intelligence-related activity -- or an operative known as an NOC (nonofficial cover), a type of intelligence officer who, unlike a case officer with diplomatic cover, is essentially embedded in a private business or other enterprise. NOCs are pricey to maintain; when one is compromised, the CIA tends to be very unhappy. But as far as some intelligence veterans are concerned, the bottom line in the Plame case is, as one puts it, "There are people in this administration who now have more in common with Philip Agee and the KGB than they do their fellow citizens."

Jason Vest is a contributor to The Nation and The Village Voice.