The current imbroglio over the leak identifying former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife as a CIA officer — and whether the leak came from the White House — has given one notorious former agent cause to reflect.
The scandal in which the White House is currently mired stems from the Intelligence Identity Protection Act, a law that exists in no small part because of the current president's father and his anger at a former CIA agent he has called "a traitor to our country."
The agent, Philip Agee, blew the cover of hundreds of CIA operatives in a 1975 book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary.
"That law was passed as a result of a lot of revelations in which people like me were involved in the 1970s," Agee says. "But now, all these years later, for the cover of a CIA officer to be blown by a high official in a Bush administration — that is of the son of the former president is really ironic."
Agee says he published the book to shake up the CIA and disrupt the work its agents were doing, but not to harm the agents themselves. "I and a lot of other people felt that there was a huge human cost to what the CIA was doing," he says.
George H.W. Bush became CIA director right after Agee's book was published.
In 1991, the elder Bush said, "I don't care how long I live, I will never forgive Philip Agee and those like him who wantonly sacrifice the lives of intelligence officers who loyally serve their country."
The ‘Anti-Agee’ Act
The first President Bush believed that Richard Welch, a CIA officer in Greece, was killed because Agee blew his cover. So as CIA director, and from 1981 as vice president, Bush campaigned to make naming names illegal. That law — the Intelligence Identity Protection Act — was passed in 1982.
Since then, any government official with access to classified information who discloses the identity of a covert agent without authorization is subject to 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines.
The law was known informally as the Anti-Agee Act.
But this is not where the animosity between Agee and the Bushes ends. In her 1994 autobiography Barbara Bush: A Memoir, the former First Lady also blamed Welch's death on Agee's book.
Agee denies his book had anything to do with the CIA officer's death. "Welch was not in my book," he says. "I never knew Welch and I never published his name."
Welch had been outed in a magazine Agee was affiliated with, CounterSpy, which was for a time popular among the circle of New York's radical chic. CounterSpy identified Welch as being a CIA officer, but so had a 1968 book and so had the Athens News, one month before his assassination by the Greek terrorist group November 17.
Agee says he had nothing to do with it. In 1995 he sued Barbara Bush for defamation. When the paperback edition of her memoir was published, it did not include the claim. Agee dropped the suit after exacting a letter from Mrs. Bush — presumably not one of those polite notes for which the Bushes are famous.
"She sent a letter of apology and acknowledgement that the part she wrote about me and Welch was false," Agee recalls. "That, I thought, put this whole Welch thing to an end, back in the 1990s."
A Father’s Influence
But now Agee is back in the news because the "Anti-Agee Act" is front and center.
"If there's a leak out of my administration I want to know who it is," the President George W. Bush said this week. "And if the person has violated the law that person will be taken care of."
Democrats are, of course, pounding. "The federal law is very clear," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said. "There are penalties associated with leaking the names of CIA agents and I think those responsible ought to be dealt with promptly."
Astoundingly, Agee thinks so too.
"If they finally identify the person who exposed Mrs. Wilson — that is, who gave her name to the columnist [Robert] Novak [and told him] that she was a CIA operative, and if she really is undercover, then I think they have to prosecute," Agee says. "In fact after that law was passed I didn't do any more naming of names and I now submit my writing to the CIA for pre-publication review — as is required by a court order."
In fact, the man seen by the U.S. government as one of the most notorious traitors of the 20th century sees the behavior of the alleged White House leaker in a negative light, even though he theoretically has no problem with outing intelligence officers.
"Of course there is a big difference between the naming of Ambassador Wilson's wife as a CIA operative under cover from my motivations and the motivations of all the many people I was working with in the 1970s," he says. "Our purpose was political — was to try to put a stop to the dirty work, and this case — it was simply dirty."
Agee says his intention was to disrupt — not harm — the lives of CIA agents. But the law to prevent future Philip Agees does not distinguish between the two. Whatever the motivation, simply revealing the identity of intelligence agents is a crime — thanks to the president's father and Philip Agee.