What the CIA Lost in the Libby Case

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This week's conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury will surely give the CIA some measure of vindication. Libby was a key figure in the White House's campaign to pressure the CIA to cook the books on Iraqi WMD. And, although he was not tried for it, Libby certainly was at the center of the campaign to expose and smear one of its former employees, Valerie Plame, and her husband Joe Wilson. Libby is the kind of political operative the CIA is more than happy to see go down. However, it's going to be a Pyrrhic victory.

That's because in the course of the Libby investigation and trial the CIA effectively lost the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In deciding not to charge Libby or anyone else in the administration with exposing a covert operative, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald all but proclaimed the act virtually unenforceable. If it had any teeth, Fitzgerald would have used it not only against Libby but also Karl Rove and Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage, the two who leaked Plame's name in the first place. Or even possibly Washington Post columnist Bob Novak, who first published it.

And let there be no doubt about it: according to press reports, all three knew exactly what they were doing. Despite what they may claim, Rove and Armitage either knew Plame was under cover, suspected she was, or should have assumed she was. As for Novak, the CIA asked him not to print the name, but he did anyway, apparently deciding he would decide who the CIA should have under cover and who it shouldn't.

Let's also not forget that in 1982 there was a good reason Congress overwhelmingly passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which was intended to prevent anyone from systematically exposing operatives as part of a campaign to harm national security. In 1975, the Greek terrorist group November 17 assassinated the CIA chief in Athens, not long after he was exposed in the press. In the '70s a former CIA officer, Philip Agee, was systematically exposing CIA personnel overseas, probably at the behest of Cuba. If Agee's campaign had been picked up by the rest of the press, the CIA would have had to close its doors.

Unlike other agencies working overseas, the CIA depends on cover. It is impossible for CIA employees to work in the world's hot spots or really almost anywhere if their names are in the press. Walking around Baghdad with a scarlet CIA tattooed on your forehead is the quickest way to get killed.

Public exposure of its operatives will have a cascading effect. We should count on CIA sources — most of whom are foreign and vulnerable to arrest or much worse — having closely watched the Libby/Plame affair. They now are going to ask themselves, if the CIA cannot protect one of its own, why should it be expected to protect them?

There was always a doubt about just how much teeth the Intelligence Identities Protection Act had. Now we know.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.