Huffpost Media
Michael Calderone Headshot

White House Launches Probe Into Accidental CIA Agent Leak, Though Prosecution Unlikely

Posted: Updated:
CIA LEAK
The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is displayed in the foyer of the original headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 18, 2009. (Photo by Andrew Harrer) | Bloomberg via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The White House is investigating the inadvertent disclosure this weekend of the identity of the CIA's station chief in Afghanistan, a mistake blasted out to 6,000 recipients of media "pool reports" summarizing the president's whereabouts each day.

On Tuesday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough called on White House counsel Neil Eggleston "to look into what happened and report back to him with recommendations on how the Administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

The Washington Post's Scott Wilson, who wrote the pool report, had received a list of people attending a briefing with President Obama from White House officials. Wilson included the list as part of a pool report from Obama's visit to Afghanistan that was distributed Saturday by the White House press office, which later sent out a revised version not including the station chief's name.

The disclosure has been characterized as a mistake and thereby stands in contrast to Bush administration officials' outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the Iraq War.

But the Obama administration, given its unprecedented crackdown on leaks and its seven criminal prosecutions over classified disclosures to the media, is drawing scrutiny of its own for how it has handled this latest blunder. Though recent disclosures to the news media have led to prison terms for the leakers, it appears this weekend's mistake will only prompt a process review, as Guardian national security editor Spencer Ackerman noted.

In an interview with The Huffington Post prior to the announcement of the probe, Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director at the Government Accountability Project, said there's "a complete double standard in who gets prosecuted when it comes to leaks."

Radack, an attorney, represented former CIA operative John Kiriakou, who is now serving 30 months in prison for providing the name of a covert officer to freelance journalist Matthew Cole in August 2008.

Kiriakou gained national attention in December 2007 for discussing the use of waterboarding during an ABC News interview, and soon after became a source to journalists investigating torture. The New York Times reported that Kiriakou, who had left the agency in 2004, said he believed the officer whose name he provided to Cole was retired, and that he wasn't aware Cole was passing information to lawyers for Guantánamo Bay detainees. Cole did not publish an article based on the information that Kiriakou provided.

Radack said that if you "leak information that's embarrassing to the administration, shows its incompetence or ineptitude or its illegality, you can face jail."

In a follow-up email after the White House investigation was announced Tuesday, Radack said the probe is "a first step, but I don't see Espionage or Intelligence Identity Protection Act charges resulting, much less prison terms."

"Most of these internal investigations result in, 'We messed up, but didn't mean to, therefore no one is responsible,'" Radack said.

There has long been a double standard of administrations condemning unsanctioned disclosures while leaking to reporters when politically advantageous. And this isn't the first time the Obama administration has accidentally leaked classified information.

Former CIA director Leon Panetta reportedly revealed details of the Osama bin Laden raid while in the presence of "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmaker Mark Boal. The CIA separately permitted Boal to meet with the covert CIA agent who served as the protagonist for the film, which attracted criticism upon its release for wrongly suggesting that use of torture was essential in finding bin Laden.

The CIA did not permit the same woman to speak with journalists, given her undercover status, and news organizations did not reveal her identity.

It's common for major news outlets to withhold information at the CIA's request, even, in some instances, when the information no longer appears to be a secret.

For instance, in 2011, U.S. news organizations withheld the location of a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, despite international reports of its existence. The following year, a number of news outlets omitted a key detail of the Benghazi attack even after it appeared on the AP wire. Last year, news organizations withheld the identities of two high-ranking and "widely known" CIA officials.

Despite the pool report appearing in thousands of inboxes, all major news outlets have continued to withhold the covert agent's name at the government's request.

Around the Web

Timeline: The CIA Leak Case : NPR

White House Leaks CIA Chief Identity to Foreign Media by 'Mistake'

Leading CIA official in Afghanistan accidentally exposed