Fired Leaker Caught in Sting Operation?

Much more news has come out about yesterday’s firing of a CIA officer for leaking classified secrets to the press.

The NYT reports her name, duty station, and the information leaked:

The C.I.A. would not identify the officer, but several government officials said it was Mary O. McCarthy, a veteran intelligence analyst who until 2001 was senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, where she served under President Bill Clinton and into the Bush administration. At the time of her dismissal, Ms. McCarthy was working in the agency’s inspector general’s office, after a stint at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an organization in Washington that examines global security issues.

The dismissal of Ms. McCarthy provided fresh evidence of the Bush administration’s determined efforts to stanch leaks of classified information. The Justice Department has separately opened preliminary investigations into the disclosure of information to The Post, for its articles about secret prisons, as well as to The New York Times, for articles last fall that disclosed the existence of a program of domestic eavesdropping without warrants supervised by the National Security Agency. Those articles were also recognized this week with a Pulitzer Prize.


Ms. McCarthy’s departure followed an internal investigation by the C.I.A.’s Security Center, as part of an intensified effort that began in January to scrutinize employees who had access to particularly classified information. She was given a polygraph examination, confronted about answers given to the polygraph examiner and confessed, the government officials said. On Thursday, she was stripped of her security clearance and escorted out of C.I.A. headquarters. Ms. McCarthy did not reply Friday evening to messages left by e-mail and telephone.

“A C.I.A. officer has been fired for unauthorized contact with the media and for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” said a C.I.A. spokesman, Paul Gimigliano. “This is a violation of the secrecy agreement that is the condition of employment with C.I.A. The officer has acknowledged the contact and the disclosures.”


Intelligence officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said that the dismissal resulted from “a pattern of conduct” and not from a single leak, but that the case involved in part information about secret C.I.A. detention centers that was given to The Washington Post.

They also report that, “Public records show that Ms. McCarthy contributed $2,000 in 2004 to the presidential campaign of John Kerry, the Democratic nominee.” [Update: Tom Maguire finds that the McCarthys donated a total of $9500 to Democrats in 2004.] That’s interesting and getting some attention on Republican blogs. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that someone who was so vehemently opposed to Bush policies that she would illegally leak classified information about them to the press would support his opponent.

As to the Agency morale issue I raised yesterday,

Several former intelligence officials — who were granted anonymity after requesting it for what they said were obvious reasons under the circumstances — were divided over the likely effect of the dismissal on morale. One veteran said the firing would not be well-received coming so soon after the disclosure of grand jury testimony by Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff that President Bush in 2003 approved the leak of portions of a secret national intelligence estimate on Iraqi weapons. “It’s a terrible situation when the president approves the leak of a highly classified N.I.E., and people at the agency see management as so disastrous that they feel compelled to talk to the press,” said one former C.I.A. officer with extensive overseas experience.

But another official, whose experience was at headquarters, said most employees would approve Mr. Goss’s action. “I think for the vast majority of people this will be good for morale,” the official said. “People didn’t like some of their colleagues deciding for themselves what secrets should be in The Washington Post or The New York Times.”

That’s exactly right.

Rick Moran adds another angle to the story: Could the whole “CIA secret prisons” story have been a hoax to smoke out leakers? It’s a bit premature, certainly, but the EU’s preliminary report finds no evidence such prisons ever existed.

Update: McCarthy’s [In a somewhat related case] lawyers [for two journalists being charged under a WWI-era law for receiving and publishing classified information] are throwing several strategies against the wall to see what sticks. They allege that Condi Rice leaked information to an Israeli lobbyist, a claim that is neither proven nor particularly relevant. But, according to AP’s Matthew Barakat, “they believe it seeks to criminalize the type of backchannel exchanges between government officials, lobbyists and the press that are part and parcel of how Washington works.” This claim is simultaneously true and immaterial; disclosing classified information without authorization is a crime.”

This, though, bears watching: “During Friday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said he is considering dismissing the government’s entire case because the law used to prosecute Rosen and Weissman may be unconstitutionally vague and broad and infringe on freedom of speech.” I can’t imagine that the courts would rule that protecting national security secrets is not a valid reason for restricting the free speech of those who have agreed to receive secrets in exchange for not disclosing them outside channels. Still, stranger things have happened.

Update 2: Via a comment from John Burgess below, I see that I was conflating the McCarthy case and a separate one in my first update. This changes my interpretation quite considerably. Indeed, I share Judge Ellis’ inclination that the law in question violates the 1st Amendment, at least as construed by the courts in modern times (although not the era of the Framers). My understanding has always been that it is illegal for those with security clearances to divulge information to unauthorized sources but that those sources are free to use it. The Pentagon Papers case certainly seems to bear that out. My apologies for the confusion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. FYI,
    Instapundit points to several other posts on this. Including a total of $7,500 given to democrats (and so far none to republicans) since she lost her position on the national security council when Bush took office in 2000.

    She apparently is also connected to the Sudan nerve gas/aspirin factory.

  2. John Burgess says:

    The difficulty the judge is having with the Rosen/Weissman case is that while the law is pretty clear about the divulging of secrets by a government official, it’s not quite so clear–in fact, the issue is unprecedented–in its application to non- government employees. Rosen and Weissman were both lobbyists, not government employees.

    If the law does pertain to them, then it also might pertain to journalists and academic researchers. Neither of those parties is particularly keen on that interpretation, for obvious reasons.

    I think the gov’t needs to come out with a new and explicit security warning for its employees. It needs to delineate just who is authorized to speak to the media or researchers, what they are authorized to say (generally), who is able to authorize it, and the consequences of fouling up.

    If the law is held to pertain to non-govermental people, then another explicit notice needs to be sent to those who might receive such information, warning of the legal consequences of receiving unauthorized-for-dissemination materials.

    There may be a substantive problem with the Rosen/Weissman case in that it’s not clear that they, as non-gov’t employees, could have had fair warning that their behavior was illegal.

    Franklin, the gov’t employee who passed on the information, has already been found guilty and was sentenced to 14 years.

  3. Herb says:

    About 30 years in the slammer is appropriate for this trator.

  4. Doug says:

    If it was indeed a “sting operation” then why were the cuffs not slapped on her immediately?

    Sting my ass. They knew it was her for months, maybe years, the anti-Bush Dems that is.

  5. legion says:

    Well, it’s not unsurprising that someone willing to do what she did might have a history of Dem leanings & support. But the idea that this was some sort of ‘sting’ operation is 100% batsh*it insane. The idea that the US would release such damaging info, even if untrue, is waaaay beyond rational.

    Kevin Drum brings up an excellent point on this… Apparently, McCarthy was _not_ an Operations-side CIA person – she worked in the Inspector General’s office. So, how exactly would she have even known this info to leak it in the first place? While some nutbars will insist it was “all part of the plan”, Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s much more likely there was an IG inquiry taking place about the whole affair…