Prison, fines await those who leak CIA identities

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An insider who exposes a covert CIA employee’s identity risks up to 10 years in federal prison and a $50,000 fine, but a prosecutor must clear many hurdles to make such a case.

One hurdle is that the person identified must have served in a covert capacity abroad or in a post involving foreign counterintelligence at some point in the last five years under a cover intended to shield her identity, according to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

The law that protects the identity of CIA and other undercover operatives was passed in 1982 after a rogue CIA agent revealed the identities of agency agents, employees and sources abroad. The law has never been tested.

The Washington Times yesterday was told those conditions apply to Valerie Wilson, who also is known by her maiden name of Valerie Plame and is married to former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson. Her identity was leaked after Mr. Wilson criticized the Bush administration’s Iraq policy regarding reports that Iraqis tried to buy nuclear-bomb materials in Niger.

A source who is informed about the spreading investigation into the leak said widespread reports are incorrect in reporting that Mrs. Wilson is an analyst whose identity would not be protected, and that the very fact the FBI received the CIA report indicates her role fit definitions of “undercover intelligence officer” and “covert agent” in the Protection Act.

The law reserves its toughest punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine for those with official access to the classified information that identifies an agent. Lesser prison terms of five years and fines of $15,000 to $25,000 are specified for people with security clearances but who learn a cloak-and-dagger agent’s identity elsewhere.

In either case, a crime is committed only if the person who leaks is aware the government “is taking affirmative measures to conceal” the intelligence link, and if the person deliberately gives the information to someone not authorized to know it.

Mrs. Wilson’s secret life as an energy expert who focused on weapons of mass destruction unraveled after syndicated columnist Robert Novak reported the relationship July 14, based on information he said came from two senior administration officials.

One clause of the law not expected to apply to a single disclosure is interpreted under the federal-sentencing guidelines to cover journalists who participate in “a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents.”

The 1982 protection law was a direct response to the case of Philip Agee, an American expatriate and former clandestine CIA agent who the Supreme Court said “repeatedly and publicly identified individuals and organizations located in foreign countries as undercover CIA agents, employees, or sources.”

Mr. Agee was convicted of nothing, but lost his U.S. passport and now operates a tourist business in Havana, his lawyer said yesterday.

“I think there were no prosecutions under that new law,” said New York lawyer Melvin L. Wulf, who argued the unsuccessful appeal for Mr. Agee and several publications at the Supreme Court in 1981 and who said he helped oppose passage of the 1982 law now under the microscope.

Mr. Wulf, an admitted political partisan, said he doesn’t believe the law is needed but advocates an exception for the current administration.

“On this I’m now a law-and-order man. I do believe it should be very strictly enforced in this particular case and I hope they get somebody in the White House and further damage Bush’s reputation, which is eroding as we speak,” Mr. Wulf said.

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