When the newspaperman Robert Novak, columnist for The Washington Post, revealed the identity of an active CIA agent in 2003, he claimed to be reporting an administration leak and did not expect to be prosecuted under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA). Yet presumably the people who let slip the information could have been charged under that law. Eventually it become widely known that the probable leakers may have been Karl Rove, a senior adviser, or Irving Lewis Scooter Libby, Chief of Staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, or Richard Armitage, a Deputy Secretary of State, thus giving credence to the accusation that political issues, not national security concerns, were the impetus behind the breach of confidence. Libby was eventually convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Fortunately the covert operative in question, Valerie Palme Wilson, wife of former diplomat and current international business consultant Joseph C. Wilson, was not endangered physically, however her continued usefulness as a case officer was a confirmed casualty of the sorry affair. She resigned from the CIA in 2005 and published a memoir in 2007. Supposedly her husband’s criticism of the Bush administration’s arguments in favor of going to war in Iraq were the cause of the personal attack on her, the leak which resulted in outing her status as a spy.
Making it illegal to publicize classified information, such as the names of CIA agents, was the primary reason for passage of the IIPA. It was a response to a situation which arose in the 80’s when a number of people were exposed by one person’s determined attempt to gut the CIA, to shut it or eviscerate it. Unfortunately some case officers and their informants were killed and many could no longer continue service to the country. Since passage in 1982 few cases have actually come to trial under the IIPA, largely due to narrow legal requirements. So the fact Rove, Libby, Armitage, Novak and others escaped or got off relatively lightly in the Palme affair is explicable, although somewhat suspect politically and, of course, ethically.
Some legal activists hope to amend this law, the IIPA, to make it more robust in protecting people who engage in secret and dangerous work on behalf of national security. Still, even with adequate improvements in current legislation, politicians may winkle out ways to circumvent the legalities in the interest of political gain. Of course, some reportable successes by the CIA would improve the agency’s clout, a not inconsiderable point in the interests of success in future war or defense efforts, whether of the cold war or aggressive combat variety.
FYI: These are merely some speculations by an average citizen, not a legal scholar or even a publicist for the alphabet soup guys based in Washington.
Andrew M. Szilagyi, “Blowing its cover: how the Intelligence Identities Portection Act has masqueraded as effective law”, William and Mary Law Review 51.6 (2010)