The Real Story Behind the Story

John Podesta
John Podesta

Media coverage of the "outing" of a CIA operative is focused on the unfolding Justice Department investigation, the calls for a special prosecutor, and the political ramifications for George Bush’s administration. What is receiving far less attention is the long-term damage done to our national security.

The legacy of this story is the harm — the inevitable and serious harm — done to the security of the United States at a time when we can ill afford a diversion, much less a deliberate breach.

The facts of the case are still developing, and many will never be made public because revealing them would further compromise classified intelligence and operations. But even with the scant information on the record, it is possible to conduct a preliminary damage assessment of the "best case" and "worst case" hypothetical scenarios in order to comprehend fully what this story is really about. Neither scenario presents a pretty picture.

Consider the best hypothetical case: At the time of the leak, Joe Wilson’s wife was working at CIA Headquarters as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction issues. In the past, she perhaps had one or two overseas postings and handled a few spies — called "assets" or "agents" — who provided foreign intelligence information to the United States.

In this scenario, the leak of her name has not only compromised her career but also the livelihoods and potentially the lives of any individuals she recruited to help the United States. We will no longer receive or benefit from the information provided by those sources. The United States has lost a talented professional at a time when the demand for trained intelligence experts is at its highest. The enormous investment of tax dollars in her clandestine service and language training is lost.

What is more, Justice Department officials and FBI Special Agents are now diverted from other critical tasks in order to assess and fully investigate the case for possible prosecution. If there is a prosecution, it will come at a substantial cost to the government and could put at risk highly sensitive classified information during a public trial.

At the same time, at CIA headquarters and stations abroad, experts who should be focusing on the terrorist threat are instead consumed by the "damage assessment" that is required and necessary. The damage assessment must examine every overseas posting, every contact, every operation, and every act to recruit or otherwise handle an asset by Mrs. Wilson during her entire career.

By its very nature, a damage assessment has to assume the worst. All foreign agents and all operations with which Mrs. Wilson was involved — in any way — must be assumed to be compromised. If an operation is ongoing, it likely will be shut down immediately. If a human source is still active, contact must be immediately terminated. And in some cases, the assets and their families must be exfiltrated, relocated and supported, for their own safety — at taxpayer expense and sometimes indefinitely.

Now consider the worst hypothetical case: Mrs. Wilson, currently or in the past, was as the New York Times reported a "NOC" — operating under non-official cover. Unlike some undercover agents who are nominal employees of other government agencies, a NOC is under deep cover and has no U.S. government affiliation. NOC officers use the cover of private companies or consulting firms. Unlike most CIA officers operating clandestinely, NOCs do not enjoy diplomatic immunity when they are overseas, nor do they travel on diplomatic or official U.S. government passports. Nor do they benefit from official U.S. government protection if their CIA affiliation is discovered by the host government or anyone else. While most CIA officers operating in a clandestine capacity are expelled if discovered, NOCs have no refuge and may face immediate personal danger.

As a NOC, Joe Wilson’s wife might have had numerous overseas assignments over a ten or twenty year career. She could have recruited many human sources in a variety of countries, perhaps sources who report on weapons of mass destruction, arms dealing, and terrorism. Some of those sources could still be active and handled by other NOCs — and could be providing critical information about current WMD attack plans of a terrorist group against the United States

All of the damage done in the "best case" scenario applies in this case as well. But the ramifications are far more serious.

Any source recruited by Mrs. Wilson would be in immediate danger — or might already be dead. If her sources were transferred to other NOCs, those CIA officers are also in danger, as are their contacts. The company that agreed to assist the U.S. by providing her cover is put at significant risk, after acting purely for patriotic reasons. And the taxpayer has lost an investment — estimated at about $1 million over the course of a NOCs career.

Most significant, we lose critical intelligence. At a time when our homeland security is threatened as never before, and as the September 11 investigations demonstrate, we can ill afford to lose any shred of information that could help us to protect American lives.

John Podesta is the CEO of the Center For American Progress and served as Chief of Staff to President Clinton.