By R. Jeffrey Smith and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
A lawyer representing fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy said yesterday that his client did not leak any classified information and did not disclose to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest the existence of secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists.
The statement by Ty Cobb, a lawyer in the Washington office of Hogan & Hartson who said he was speaking for McCarthy, came on the same day that a senior intelligence official said the agency is not asserting that McCarthy was a key source of Priest's award-winning articles last year disclosing the agency's secret prisons.
McCarthy was fired because the CIA concluded that she had undisclosed contacts with journalists, including Priest, in violation of a security agreement. That does not mean she revealed the existence of the prisons to Priest, Cobb said.
Cobb said that McCarthy, who worked in the CIA inspector general's office, "did not have access to the information she is accused of leaking," namely the classified information about any secret detention centers in Europe. Having unreported media contacts is not unheard of at the CIA but is a violation of the agency's rules.
In a statement last Friday, the agency said it had fired one of its officers for having unauthorized conversations with journalists in which the person "knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence." Intelligence officials subsequently acknowledged that the official was McCarthy and said that Priest is among the journalists with whom she acknowledged sharing information.
Priest won the Pulitzer Prize this month for a series of articles she wrote last year about the intelligence community, including the revelation of the existence of CIA-run prisons in East European countries. The Post withheld the names of the countries at the Bush administration's request, and it attributed the information to current and former intelligence officials from three continents.
The articles sparked a wide-ranging CIA investigation that included polygraphing scores of officials who worked in offices privy to information about the secret prisons, including McCarthy and her boss, CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson. Nowhere in the CIA statement last week was McCarthy accused of leaking information on the prisons, although some news accounts suggested that the CIA had made that claim.
Though McCarthy acknowledged having contact with reporters, a senior intelligence official confirmed yesterday that she is not believed to have played a central role in The Post's reporting on the secret prisons. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing personnel matters.
McCarthy, 61, who earlier held senior posts at the White House and the National Intelligence Council (NIC), has declined requests for comment. But Cobb said she was "devastated" that her government career of more than two decades will "forever be linked with misinformation about the reasons for her termination," and he said that her firing 10 days before she was to retire was "certainly not for the reasons attributed to the agency." His comments constituted the first statement from her camp since her firing became public last week.
A onetime Africa specialist who served in the early 1990s as the NIC's senior officer responsible for warning of imminent security threats to the country, McCarthy went on to help oversee U.S. intelligence programs on the National Security Council from 1996 to 2001. In that role, she had access to details of every covert intelligence action authorized by the president.
Cobb said McCarthy had planned for some time to leave the CIA to pursue a career in public interest law. She finished night courses for a law degree at Georgetown University and passed the bar exam in November, he said. She formally began her retirement process in December, stopped going to her office on Feb. 7, and was to complete a standard retirement training course and cease employment on April 30.
Cobb said that the polygraph tests and interviews that led to her firing came after she had initiated her retirement, and that she did not quit because she anticipated the agency's action. Although not addressing all these details, the senior intelligence official confirmed that McCarthy was preparing to retire and said she will retain her government pension despite the agency's decision.
"Firing someone who was days away from retirement is the least serious action they could have taken," said a former intelligence official who is friendly with McCarthy but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of speculation on the administration's motive. "That's certainly enough to frighten those who remain in the agency."
Where Cobb's account and the CIA's account differed yesterday is on whether McCarthy discussed any classified information with journalists. Intelligence sources said that the inspector general's office was generally aware of a secret prison program but that McCarthy did not have access to specifics, such as prison locations.
The investigation that led to McCarthy's firing is one of several probes initiated by the Bush administration into high-profile leaks. Another is underway into the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on a warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.
But it remains unclear whether any of the investigations will result in criminal charges. A law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said yesterday that the FBI has not opened a formal probe into the prisons disclosure because the CIA has yet to send a formal criminal "referral" to the Justice Department on that issue.
"We do have investigations going," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said during a visit to the field office in Charlotte, the Associated Press reported. "Leaking of classified materials is a concern for those agencies that have classified materials."
Fredrick P. Hitz, who was inspector general at the CIA from 1990 to 1998, said his office was the subject of a leak inquiry after The Post wrote about a classified report he submitted to Congress on the Aldrich H. Ames espionage case. "I was polygraphed several times, as were some of my staff," Hitz said in an interview. No source for the leak was found and the investigation was terminated.
Several national security law experts said yesterday that, looking at what has been publicly disclosed so far, prosecutors would have a difficult time building a criminal case against McCarthy. Any information obtained during polygraph examinations is essentially useless to prosecutors, since generally it is inadmissible in criminal courts.
In addition, federal espionage laws do not outlaw all disclosures of classified information, at least not specifically. Instead, a collection of separate statutes prohibits unauthorized disclosures of certain categories of information -- such as intercepted communications or codes -- and violations often hinge on important details that are still unclear in the CIA prisons case.
Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute at George Washington University, said he does not think the Post article includes the kind of operational details that a prosecutor would need to build a case.
"It's the fact of the thing that they're trying to keep secret, not to protect sources and methods, but to hide something controversial," he said. "That seems like a hard prosecution to me."
Kate Martin, executive director of the Center for National Security Studies, said that "even if the espionage statutes were read to apply to leaks of information, we would say the First Amendment prohibits criminalizing leaks of information which reveal wrongful or illegal activities by the government."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.