A former CIA counterterrorism specialist accused the Bush administration Friday of leaking the identity of a CIA operative in revenge for the lack of support by the U.S. intelligence community for charges that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seeking to rebuild his nuclear weapons program.
The Justice Department is currently investigating the leak of the identity and CIA status of the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who this summer publicly criticized evidence offered by the White House to justify war with Iraq. Earlier this month, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has been criticized by congressional Democrats for being too close to the White House to effectively investigate the leak, said his department has made progress in tracking down those responsible.
On Friday, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee heard from three former CIA officers who criticized the Bush administration over the leak, which was attributed to a "senior administration official." In addition, the leak also both put Wilson's wife at risk and damaged the CIA's ability to combat terrorism, they said.
Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist and frequent critic of the administration's handling of intelligence, accused the White House of leaking Wilson's wife's identity in retaliation for the intelligence community's lack of support on charges that Iraq was renewing its nuclear weapons program.
"She was outed … as a vindictive act … because the agency-CIA and DIA and some of the other portions of the intelligence community-were not providing support for policy statements that Saddam Hussein was renewing his nuclear program," Cannistraro said.
He also said the leak demonstrated the White House's "underlying contempt" of the U.S. intelligence community.
"Many of the people in the administration were publicly identified as ideologues and members of the group that advocated war in Iraq were not happy with the CIA, were not happy even with DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], the Pentagon's own intelligence service because it didn't consistently provide the supporting data for the public assertions that Iraq was a clear danger," Cannistraro said.
Former CIA case officer Jim Marcinkowski said that he and many other CIA agents felt "betrayed" by the White House over the leak.
The former CIA officers said the leak could place Wilson's wife in physical danger-a charge that has been made by both congressional Democrats and by Wilson himself.
"Certainly, Ambassador Wilson's wife now will have a harder time picking her vacations spots, at a bare minimum," Marcinkowski said.
He also outlined for the panel a number of ways the leak could damage overall U.S. intelligence efforts, including the CIA's ability to reassure current and potential operatives of safety and security concerns and the agency's reputation to maintain the confidentiality of friendly foreign governments that share information with the United States.
The leak will also have a "chilling" effect on the CIA's ability to recruit new agents, Cannistraro said.
"It is going to be very difficult to get young men and women to dedicate their lives to this particular kind of intelligence work, which is nonofficial cover-living abroad in a capacity in which you are not identified as a member of the U.S. government-better to provide the access you need," he said.
Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) sent a letter Friday to the CIA's inspector general calling for an investigation in the leak's impact on the agency's ability to recruit and maintain agents.
In their testimony Friday, the former CIA officers also disparaged the Justice Department's ability to fully and effectively conduct the leak investigation. "At a minimum," Cannistraro said, Ashcroft should recuse himself from the case and a special counsel should be appointed-a measure that has repeatedly been called for by congressional Democrats and often deemed unnecessary by the White House.
"Whether he [Ashcroft] does a fair job, an honest job, and he comes to the right conclusion I think will be irrelevant. There will always be the questions if he does it himself, political or otherwise: Was a fair job done?" Marcinkowski said. "The perception is always going to be there that there's going to be a remaining question because somebody put something under the table or somebody's playing cat-and-mouse with the truth. It's going to be there. We've seen it in so many cases. You can expect that to happen again," he said.