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News Outlets Withhold Names Of ‘Widely Known' Undercover CIA Officers

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NEW YORK –- The CIA on Tuesday selected a man to become the agency's next director of the National Clandestine Service, a key position that involves overseeing spy operations around the world, over the woman currently serving in the role on an acting basis.

News organizations acknowledged on Tuesday that the officers' identities are hardly a secret in Washington. But they typically withhold the names of undercover officers as a matter of policy and did so in this case, with The Washington Post, Associated Press and The New York Times choosing not to identify the man. Similarly, the woman -- who would have been a controversial choice given her ties to torture tactics used in interrogations during the Bush years -- remains undercover and was not identified Tuesday or in articles on her interim role a couple months back.

“The name of the new head of the clandestine service is widely known in intelligence, diplomatic and journalistic circles, as is the name of the woman who was passed over,” the AP’s Adam Goldman and Kimberly Dozier wrote. “Both have declared their CIA affiliations with foreign governments around the world. The CIA, however, maintains that the names should not be made public because they are technically undercover.”

Although the general public won’t learn their names from news stories about the shake-up, journalists writing them likely do. One intelligence reporter told The Huffington Post in March that “most people who cover the beat probably know" the name of the woman now passed over for the job.

And others no longer in the government, but with ties to the agency, know the officers' names and willing to speak in broad terms about them. Former CIA director Michael Hayden commented about them Tuesday to the AP, albeit not by name. "The officer chosen is a wonderful choice, and the woman not chosen was an equally wonderful choice,” he said. The Times quoted a "former CIA officer" who spoke anonymously as saying the new NCS head is "a safe choice."

While it's understandable for the CIA to argue that the media shouldn't identify undercover officers, such requests appear less vital in terms of protecting national security when the names are "widely known in intelligence, diplomatic and journalistic circles." And it seems likely anyone determined to find out the names could do so from the biographical and professional details published in articles about the transition.

In addition, the NCS director isn't always undercover -- in fact, the Times noted Tuesday that it's rare for that to be the case. The July 2010 appointment of John Bennett, who most recently held the position on a permanent basis, was announced publicly. CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz suggested the man's name remained secret because he is currently active, telling The Huffington Post that CIA Director John Brennan “appointed a currently serving NCS officer -- who remains undercover -- to be the next head of the NCS, rather than calling on a retired officer to lead the ranks.”

Ebitz said the man selected, "is a talented and effective intelligence officer who has had rich substantive and operational experiences worldwide over the course of his almost 30 year Agency career." Given the man's undercover status, the CIA will urge news outlets not to publish the man's name.

“Generally speaking and without confirming any specific identity, we ask that media organizations respect the legally protected status of our undercover officers and the sensitive and often dangerous nature of their work," Ebitz said.

Major news outlets typically honor CIA requests, even when information is widely known in Washington or has already been published abroad.

In November, The Huffington Post reported that the New York Times, Washington Post and AP agreed not to reveal that two Navy SEALs killed in the Benghazi attack were employed by the CIA -- a detail one national security reporter called an "open secret" in intelligence circles and which had already been briefly reported before being pulled back.

Several U.S. news outlets agreed not to reveal the location of an American drone base in Saudi Arabia despite coverage in the foreign press, as The Huffington Post reported in February. News outlets similarly didn't report on Raymond Davis's CIA ties when he was arrested in Pakistan, in 2011, even though the local media and a British newspaper did.

The CIA has occasionally allowed undercover officers to speak without revealing his or her identity. The agency permitted "Zero Dark Thirty" screenwriter Mark Boal to meet the person who inspired Maya, the film's protagonist, but has not permitted journalists to interview her because of her undercover status.