An unidentified Obama administration official exposed the name of the highest-ranking CIA officer in Kabul on Saturday by accidentally placing it on a list of names provided to a bunch of media outlets.
The list contained the names of several senior U.S. officials who took part in a military briefing during President Barack Obama’s surprise Memorial Day visit to Afghanistan to glad-hand with the troops, reports The Washington Post.
The list candidly described the head of the clandestine service in Kabul as “chief of station.” The CIA specifically uses the title to refer to the top spy stationed in every country around the world.
The unidentified CIA station chief was among 15 senior U.S. officials who gave Obama a military briefing at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
Other, non-covert officials at the meeting included four-star Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., a Marine who commands all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and James B. Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to the country.
The White House press office included the name of the CIA chief along with the other officials present at the briefing. The press office distributed the list via email to journalists in Afghanistan with Obama on his surprise visit.
The CIA officer’s name became even more widely circulated later when it was included in a “pool report” summarizing the military briefing for media organizations which were not involved in Obama’s Memorial Day foray into Afghanistan.
The pool report went to over 6,000 recipients.
Several member of foreign media were among the recipients of the pool report.
Washington Post White House bureau chief Scott Wilson first noticed the mention of the CIA’s top man in Afghanistan on the pool report. He alerted Obama administration press officials in Afghanistan.
Wilson said White House press staff didn’t care at first. They just blamed military officials for giving them the list. However, when senior White House officials learned about the revelation, they hastily issued an updated list of the individuals at the military briefing. In this second list, the CIA officer’s name was scrubbed.
By that time, the whole fracas had been tweeted (though without the CIA official’s name).
American media organizations are withholding the name of the CIA officer who had his cover completely blown because of a surprise visit by President Obama.
One reason is because Obama administration officials have warned that the lives of the CIA boss and his family members may be at risk if the name becomes even more widely disseminated.
The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 makes it a federal crime for anyone with access to classified information to intentionally expose the identity of individuals who are working in a covert capacity for the United States unless the U.S. government has already revealed the relationship publicly.
As the Post notes, prior to the Obama presidency, the federal government had typically managed to avoid blowing the cover of its spies.
There is precedent, however.
In 2007, a federal judge sentenced Republican Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, to 30 months of hard time and a fine of $250,000 for leaking the covert identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson.
Libby was not convicted for intentionally spilling Plame’s identity. Instead, he was convicted for perjury, making false statements to federal investigators, and obstruction of justice.
President George W. Bush later commuted the prison-sentence portion of Libby’s sentence, but left other parts intact.
Libby was later disbarred in both Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
Beyond warning journalists not to reveal the name of the CIA chief of station in Afghanistan, Obama’s White House refused to comment on the embarrassing situation.
The CIA also refused to comment and it’s not clear how the huge federal spy apparatus will react. The organization certainly has a large presence in Afghanistan. At the same time, as the Post notes, the station chief is unlikely to be among the spies personally snooping around the war-ravaged country.
In recent years, at least three CIA station chiefs in neighboring Pakistan have had their covers blown.