- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

A powerful, even patriotic scoop in last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune set a time machine whirring, emitting a sound somewhere between Walter Mitty’s ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa and Yogi Berra’s deja-vu-vu-vu (all over again).

This time it was the Tribune’s savvy senior correspondent John Crewdson who had come to the rescue of the Central Intelligence Agency (though some of the dimmer minds in the agency might not quite see it that way) by revealing a dangerous intelligence gap.

In a March 12 investigative report, Mr. Crewdson revealed how America’s enemies, armed only with a computer hooked to the Internet, could do what he did: Break the cover of 2,653 CIA employees around the world, many of them secret agents. Headline: “Internet blows CIA cover.”

Three decades ago, a Newsday Washington bureau chief did a similar thing, albeit on the far more primitive, low-tech scale that was, in its way, state-of-the-art spookology for that Cold War era. In a June 6, 1974, semi-investigative (semi-luck) report, the Newsday journalist (who would come in from the cold some 32 years later to write this column) revealed how America’s enemy rogues and spies, armed only with no-tech eyes, ears and shoes, could do what he did: Break the cover of a secret CIA school for spies operating in a well-appointed downtown Washington apartment building. Headline: “CIA spy school blows its cover.”

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. Deja-vu-vu-vu. Slowly, a pattern emerges. In fact, a pattern within a pattern. In both cases, the journalist revealed to the CIA an intelligence gap within its midst that stunned and embarrassed the agency — but provided the CIA with info it needed to try to recover its secrets, post haste. And in both cases, the Chicago Tribune and Newsday journalists opted not to publish the identities or other distinguishing characteristics of the CIA operatives whose covers had been blown.

The work of the Tribune’s Mr. Crewdson was truly impressive. He explained how he was able to use basic search engines and commercial online data services to discover the identities of CIA operatives, front companies and so on.

He reported CIA Director Porter Goss was said to be “horrified” at the discovery and that the agency was moving swiftly (also belatedly) to plug its intelligence gap.

The Newsday scoop three decades earlier began, frankly, with a bit of luck. A friend who lived in an apartment building near K Street told the journalist he had noticed strange comings and goings concerning an apartment on his floor. Men in business suits would come in the morning, stay a few hours and leave. No one was there at night.

It turned out that if you stood in the nearby laundry room, where walls were thin and laced with audio-friendly water pipes, you could her with bare ears what was said inside the apartment: “… KGB… ” “… microdot… .” Lectures about code word greetings.

One day, you could hear the teacher or trainer explain how the others can avoid being followed. Then the day’s class ended; as the 1974 Newsday article reported: “It is easy to follow the spies in training as they leave. They walk several blocks and enter another apartment building where they apparently feel very much at home. They emerge a short time later on a corner balcony several stories above the street and proceed to take in the afternoon sun. It is also easy to follow the trainer. He takes the elevator down to the basement garage and drives out in a blue sedan. The car has Virginia license plates and an Arlington, Va., inspection sticker. A check of the sticker registration reveals the trainer’s true identity.”

At first the CIA’s spokesman gave the standard we-never-comment. But the reporter explained that wouldn’t do because he had all the names and numbers adding, “If they are not ours, they are probably theirs.” The CIA fessed up: “They are our guys…. It’s a training exercise…. This is all rather embarrassing.”

Then the CIA man asked the Newsday man for help. The operatives will want to know how they screwed up and the agency has no answer. The reporter explained all about the comings and goings, the walls and water pipes.

That Cold War mini-scoop was small time tweakery. But the Tribune gave the CIA a lifesaving gift: Disclosure of an Internet age intelligence gap that was both dangerous and discoverable.

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. Deja-vu-vu-vu. Sadly, the pattern is frighteningly clear. The most dangerous intelligence gap of all is the one between the ears of the CIA officials whose job requires them to think it all through and prevent gaffes that could cost agents’ lives or compromise the safety of us all.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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