Secrets of the CIA
A former colleague says the fired Mary McCarthy ‘categorically denies’ being the source of the leak on agency renditions.

By Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff
Updated: 5:43 p.m. ET April 24, 2006

April 24, 2006 - A former CIA officer who was sacked last week after allegedly confessing to leaking secrets has denied she was the source of a controversial Washington Post story about alleged CIA secret detention operations in Eastern Europe, a friend of the operative told NEWSWEEK.

The fired official, Mary O. McCarthy, “categorically denies being the source of the leak,” one of McCarthy’s friends and former colleagues, Rand Beers, said Monday after speaking to McCarthy. Beers said he could not elaborate on this denial and McCarthy herself did not respond to a request for comment left by NEWSWEEK on her home answering machine. A national security advisor to Democratic Party candidate John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, Beers worked as the head of intelligence programs on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff and later served as a top deputy on counter-terrorism for President Bush in 2002 and 2003. McCarthy, a career CIA analyst, initially worked as a deputy to Beers on the NSC and later took over Beer’s role as the Clinton NSC’s top intelligence expert.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano re-affirmed on Monday that an agency official had been fired after acknowledging “unauthorized contacts with the media and discussion of classified information” with journalists. Gimigliano and other administration spokespersons said they were prohibited by law from disclosing the identity of the person who was fired. But government officials familiar with the matter confirmed to NEWSWEEK that McCarthy, a 20-year veteran of the CIA’s intelligence—or analytical— branch, was the individual in question.

The officials, who asked for anonymity because they were discussing sensitive information, said that McCarthy had been fired after allegedly confessing during the course of a leak investigation based heavily on polygraph examinations that she had engaged in unauthorized contacts with more than one journalist regarding more than one news story. The only journalist so far identified by government sources as one of the unauthorized persons with whom McCarthy admitted contact is Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who last week won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing details of a secret airline and prison network that the CIA operates to detain and interrogate high-level Al Qaeda suspects.

Priest’s most contentious story, published by the Post last November, alleged that the CIA had been “hiding and interrogating some of its most important Al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe.” Even though the Post said it decided, in response to administration appeals, not to identify the Eastern European countries involved in secret CIA detention operations, intelligence officials said at the time that the story caused potentially serious damage to agency activities. The officials said the CIA would be filing a “crime report” with the Justice Department regarding possible leaks of classified information. (Eric C. Grant, public affairs director of the Washington Post, says none of the paper’s reporters has been subpoenaed or talked to investigators in connection with this matter.)

A counter-terrorism official acknowledged to NEWSWEEK today that in firing McCarthy, the CIA was not necessarily accusing her of being the principal, original, or sole leaker of any particular story. Intelligence officials privately acknowledge that key news stories about secret agency prison and “rendition” operations have been based, at least in part, upon information available from unclassified sources.

British freelance journalist Stephen Grey, who published the first detailed revelations of the CIA’s secret airline system for transporting terrorist detainees in the London Sunday Times in late 2004, affirmed to NEWSWEEK over the weekend that “almost all” of the information that he assembled regarding the CIA operations came from “unclassified sources.” Several news organizations, including NEWSWEEK and The New York Times, reported stories about the CIA’s secret transport and detention operations based on airplane flight plan information which originally was assembled by Grey. Other foreign journalists put together early reports about CIA “rendition” operations—in which terror suspects allegedly were transferred by undercover CIA teams to a foreign countries where they were wanted for questioning—by using public record data bases to trace the ownership and history of suspicious private airplanes that were observed at foreign airstrips around the times that local terror suspects allegedly disappeared. Administration critics have described these renditions as the outsourcing of torture.

While acknowledging that information about the CIA operations was indeed available from unclassified sources, intelligence officials maintain that revelations like those made in the Post story about Eastern Europe could not have been put together without input from people who had access to classified information. These informants could confirm the stories and add detail to them. But the fact that McCarthy evidently is denying leaking the CIA prison story to the Post—and that other key information for stories revealing CIA detention and rendition operations originated with unclassified sources—does raise questions about how far the Bush administration will be able to press its crackdown on suspected leakers.

Two official sources familiar with the inquiry which led to McCarthy’s firing cautioned that news reports indicating that McCarthy was aggressively being pursued by the Justice Department for possible criminal violations were ahead of the facts.

The sources told NEWSWEEK that because McCarthy’s alleged acknowledgements that she leaked classified information were made as a result of an inquiry based on polygraph examinations, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors to use any admissions she made in trying to put together any criminal prosecution. One of the sources, a law enforcement official close to the investigation, noted that polygraph evidence is normally inadmissible in criminal court cases because of judicial doubts about the reliability and credibility of lie-detector machines. Also, the official said, witnesses submitting to a polygraph examination usually give up their rights not to make self-incriminating statements. The use of any admissions McCarthy gave under these circumstances for a criminal investigation would therefore be problematic, the official indicated.

The law enforcement official and a counter-terrorism official familiar with the case indicated that because the polygraph evidence was likely unusable, any effort by prosecutors to make a criminal case against McCarthy would therefore have to be based on an entirely fresh reconstruction of evidence from other sources. The sources indicated that it was possible, though by no means certain, that prosecutors could still put together some kind of case against McCarthy from evidence untainted by the CIA polygraph inquiry that led to her firing.

The McCarthy case troubles some former U.S. intelligence officials, who note that the CIA, while aggressively pursuing leaks to the news media, has failed to take disciplinary action against any of its officials for the widely acknowledged intelligence failures of recent years. “Nobody got fired for September 11 and nobody gets fired for [mistakes about,] but they fire someone for this?” said one former U.S. senior intelligence official. In the case of the September 11 attacks, a report by the same Inspector General’s office where McCarthy worked recommended the convening of CIA disciplinary boards for a number of current and former officials. But CIA director Porter Goss rejected the recommendation and has refused to allow even an unclassified version of the inspector general’s report to be publicly released. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, sent the CIA two letters seeking a public disclosure of the inspector general’s findings—one only a few weeks ago—but has yet to get a response.

At the same time, some former officials said, the use of polygraphs on officials inside the inspector general’s office is potentially controversial, given the fact that the inspector general is by statute supposed to be an independent officer. “This gives them [CIA management] entrée to the I,.G’s office which they’re not supposed to have,” said another former agency official. But a former CIA Inspector General, Frederick Hitz, said he was polygraphed by the FBI over the leak of a report the internal watchdog's office produced on Soviet mole Aldrich Ames in the mid 1990s. Hitz says that security concerns would override concerns about the IG’s independence.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who got into a dispute with McCarthy in the late l980s when she was his supervisor and remains critical of her management style, nonetheless says that he “never saw her allow her political [views] to cloud her analytical judgment.” Johnson maintains the Bush White House is “really damaging the intelligence community” by sending a message to career officials that “unless you are a partisan of the party in power, you cannot be trusted.” This message, Johnson says, is destroying the intelligence community’s “professional ethos.”

A serving CIA official said that the day that McCarthy was escorted out of the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters, some former colleagues of McCarthy defended her, even while acknowledging they were not familiar with the details of the case. “She worked for me on the most sensitive national security material there is and I had no reason to think she ever did anything like what’s been alleged to have been done here,” said Beers. McCarthy was a “quality intelligence officer who handled the matters with skill and understanding,” he added.