If there ever were a story that's not worth the paper it's written on it's the "news" from the New York Times that the CIA is paying corrupt Afghan officials for information. Paying off corrupt officials if we accept espionage as a kind of corruption is exactly what the CIA was meant to do when it was set up in 1947. So where's the news?
Yes, the Karzai presidency in Afghanistan, run by people who can only think about adding zeroes to their numbered Dubai accounts before they're ousted, is rusted through and through by corruption. But it has nothing to do with the CIA, or the sources it's recruited inside Karzai's government. Nor is Afghan President Hamid Karzai a CIA puppet. The Bush White House, not the CIA, ultimately picked Karzai.
But more to the point, it's disturbing that one of the CIA's Afghan sources inside Karzai's government was identified by name (I will not do the same). As any CIA operative will tell you, he's only able to sell espionage which is a capital crime in most countries because of a promise that he can keep the source's name out of the press. But today, after these recent leaks, any Afghan has to wonder about CIA promises.
In 1982 Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which made it a federal crime to identify undercover intelligence operatives. Although the act has never really been tested since, it has been, with few exceptions, respected by the press. But that has not stopped the press from reporting on incompetence and crimes committed by our 16 intelligence agencies without the need of naming names. Isn't it time we extend the same kind of protections to intelligence sources, people who in fact have more at stake than our own operatives?
It would be a mistake to dismiss this debate as another instance of Washington inside baseball that Americans shouldn't care about. It's vitally important for us that the White House knows in all its ugly detail just how bad things are inside Karzai's government. And the best way to find out is confidential CIA sources the same ones who demand confidentiality.
Let me try this from a different angle. A former colleague working in Afghanistan says Karzai is indeed beyond redemption, and it's time for us to settle with the Taliban. "Washington is not going to like the names of the people [the Taliban leaders] we'd have to deal with," he said. "But this is the way out." He added that if serious negotiations were to occur, we would have to keep the Taliban names secret right until the end. A leak would be fatal to them and the secret talks.
I would have to guess that that is exactly what the Obama Administration is worried about a press leak, followed by a battering in the press about surrender and capitulation. Too bad in all these years we haven't found a good balance between the First Amendment and keeping a valid secret.
Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.