More than Valerie Plame's identity was exposed when her name appeared in a syndicated column in the summer of 2003.
A small Boston company listed as her employer suddenly was shown to be a bogus CIA front, and her alma mater in Belgium discovered it was a favored haunt of an American spy. At Langley, officials in the clandestine service quickly began drawing up a list of contacts and friends, cultivated over more than a decade, to triage any immediate damage.
There is no indication, according to current and former intelligence officials, that the most dire of consequences -- the risk of anyone's life -- resulted from her outing.
But after Plame's name appeared in Robert D. Novak's column, the CIA informed the Justice Department in a simple questionnaire that the damage was serious enough to warrant an investigation, officials said.
The CIA has not conducted a formal damage assessment, as is routinely done in cases of espionage and after any legal proceedings have been exhausted. Yesterday, after a two-year inquiry into the leak, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald issued a five-count indictment against Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements during the grand jury investigation.
Fitzgerald has not charged anyone with breaking a law that protects the identities of undercover operatives.
Nonetheless, intelligence specialists said the exposure of Plame -- who operated under the deepest form of cover -- was a grim reminder of the risks spies face.
"Cover and tradecraft are the only forms of protection one has and to have that stripped away because of political scheming is the moral equivalent to exposing forward deployed military units," said Arthur Brown, who retired in February as the CIA's Asian Division chief and is now a senior vice president at the consultancy firm Control Risks Group.
"In the case of the military, they can pack up and go elsewhere. In the case of a serving clandestine officer, it's the end of that officer's ability to function in that role."
Plame entered the CIA 20 years ago as a case officer at age 22. She spent several years in intensive training at home and abroad, and traveled widely, often presenting herself as a consultant.
Her official employer, listed in public records, was a Boston firm, now known to have been fictitious, named Brewster-Jennings & Associates. And during her years undercover she studied at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.
When she met her future husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, an ambassador, several years later at an embassy party, she introduced herself as an "energy analyst." It was a story she would tell her closest friends and neighbors for years.
All that changed after Wilson publicly revealed in The Washington Post and the New York Times on July 6, 2003, that he had officially investigated, and discounted, claims by President Bush that Iraq was trying to buy a key ingredient for nuclear weapons from Niger.
"The fact is, once your husband writes an op-ed piece and goes political, you have no immunity, and that's the way Washington works," said Robert Baer, who served in the CIA's clandestine service.
Eight days later, Novak, citing two senior administration officials, wrote that Wilson's trip was arranged by his wife, whom Novak identified by name as a CIA officer. The column generated speculation that the Bush administration had purposely blown her cover to try to discredit Wilson -- a critic of the administration's case for war.
"Blowing the cover of a CIA officer is the cardinal sin in the intelligence business: It could wipe out information networks and put lives at risk," Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence panel, said in a statement.
For Plame, the most serious consequence may be professional.
"It's possible that no damage was done [to national security] but she can never [work] overseas again," said Mark Lowenthal, who retired from a senior management position at the CIA in March.
Lowenthal said he was unaware of the extent of damage that may have been caused by exposing Plame, who worked in the Counterproliferation Division at CIA headquarters in Langley.
"You can only speculate that if she had foreign contacts, those contacts might be nervous and their relationships with her put them at risk. It also makes it harder for other CIA officers to recruit sources," Lowenthal said.
Intelligence officials said they would never reveal the true extent of her contacts to protect the agency and its work.
"You'll never get a straight answer about how valuable she was or how valuable her sources were," said one intelligence official who would speak only anonymously.