October 6, 2003

October 6, 2003 | Commentary on Political Thought

Spies Like Us

"Blonde... Jane Blonde," she must have cooed, introducing herself to Ambassador Joseph Wilson at a posh international Washington party years ago. Little did the CIA operations officer know she would become the subject of Washington's newest tempest in a partisan teapot.

But let's stop spinning like political Whirling Dervishes for a moment, don our trench coats and fedoras, and put this whole quasi-story into the context of real-world espionage.

If they knowingly and intentionally (key words) blew Jane Blonde's cover, Bob Novak was seriously wrong - and his source committed a crime. Undermining intelligence-collection efforts hurts our national security. It's particularly egregious when Americans are risking their lives in fighting terror and evil across the globe.

Intelligence is our first line of defense. Better intelligence could have made a difference at Pearl Harbor - and on 9/11. It can make also make a difference in a Baghdad alley.

But what foreigner is going to sign up to be an agent for the CIA, knowing that he may be exposed by some nameless bureaucrat with an agenda or the need for an ego fix? Espionage can lead straight to a swing from the gallows.

Worse, these leaks endanger the lives of American intelligence officers and their families, especially those living and serving overseas. During training, every new operations officer hears the story of CIA station chief Richard Welch: He was killed by Greek "November 17" terrorists in Athens in 1975 after his cover was blown in an American publication run by rogue CIA officer Philip Agee. (The traitorous Agee, not surprisingly, now lives in Cuba.)

These incidents also cripple the morale of this cadre of unsung patriots, who often risk life and limb in service of our country absent public credit or adulation. Despite the desperate need for a new generation of intelligence operations officers to fight the War on Terror, what young, American, budding James Bond wouldn't have to think twice about joining the CIA's once-glamorous clandestine service now?

That brings us to the issue of Jane Blonde's intelligence cover. It is not exactly clear what position Jane holds within the Company, but the CIA Web site says: "DO [Directorate of Operations] employees do go 'undercover' abroad to collect foreign intelligence by recruiting 'agents' to gather what we call human intelligence."

Cover lets operations officers seem to be someone else for the purposes of gathering information of importance to U.S. policy makers. But cover, like cheap makeup, wears off over time, exposing the reality that lies beneath. It must be reapplied from time to time, or even changed, if it is to continue concealing the naked truth. Cover can be temporary for a specific operation, or more permanent. It can last a career.

But losing your cover does not mean the end of your career as an operations officer, as some have insisted. You can be transferred to a new assignment or location, or a completely new cover can be developed. Often, all it takes is a Moneypenny-like makeover, and you're back in business.

Prosecutions are rare under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, but CIA Director George Tenet was right to forward this leak to the Justice Department for investigation - if for no other reason than to deter would-be stoolies from making this a practice.

Leaks of this nature often have widespread, serious, unintended consequences. A thorough damage assessment of this case should be done.

Since the early days of the Republic, espionage and covert action have been important tools of national power. Gen. George Washington's intelligence operations officers helped defeat the Redcoats by running British agents, conducting paramilitary raids and spreading disinformation useful to the cause. These instruments are as important to today's War on Terror as they were to the War for Independence.

But intelligence leaks, like water seeping into the ship of state's hull, undermine our ability to navigate the roiled waters of our nation's security.

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Reprinted with permission of The New York Post