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Accidental outing of CIA official could end a covert career

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 8:29 PM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "To me, it's unforgivable and the message has to be sent," Rep. King tells CNN
  • CIA chief of station in Afghanistan accidentally named in White House media report
  • If forced to leave Afghanistan, the official's absence could hurt the U.S. mission
  • Analyst: "They are going to have to pull him out"

Washington (CNN) -- A clerical misstep? Failure to double-check a routine process? Whatever the cause, the seemingly accidental outing of the CIA's top intelligence official in Afghanistan could put the life of the spy and any family members in danger.

It also raised the question of whether the official can continue working in Afghanistan after the revelation in a White House media report sent to about 6,000 journalists.

"I think they are going to have to pull him out, now that he's been identified publicly," said CNN National Security Analyst Robert Baer, noting the Taliban would likely attempt to assassinate the official. "It will affect his career over the long term, too."

Josh Rogin, who covers national security issues for The Daily Beast, told CNN on Tuesday the mistake was "catastrophic" for the official's career and "potential future as a covert operator, both in Afghanistan or anywhere else."

The official "was in the middle of a very dangerous mission, which was to govern the transition of CIA forces in Afghanistan," Rogin noted.

If forced to leave now due to danger over being exposed, the official's absence could hurt the mission, according to Rogin.

Oops... CIA agent outed by W.H.

Given the potentially dangerous nature of the situation, CNN has not broadcast or published online the name of the official.

Administration officials expressed alarm over the mistake.

Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that steps are being taken.

"It shouldn't have happened. We're trying to figure out why it happened. In fact, chief of staff Denis McDonough asked the White House counsel to look into it, to figure out what happened and to make sure it won't happen again," Blinken said.

Asked whether the official will have to leave Afghanistan, Blinken added, "You'll understand that I can't comment on the details, but you can rest assured that the security of this person is foremost in our minds and will be taken care of."

The official's name was included on a list of people attending a military briefing for President Barack Obama during his surprise visit to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Sunday.

It's common for such lists to be given to the media, but names of intelligence officials are rarely provided. In this case, the individual's name was listed next to the title, "Chief of Station."

The common practice is for the print pool reporter -- a journalist representing the wider media contingent who relays information about an event to other reporters -- to copy and paste the list provided by the White House into what is called a media pool report.

It then gets distributed to a large list of media outlets by the White House, which does not edit the list.

In this case, the print pool reporter that day -- Scott Wilson, the White House bureau chief for the Washington Post -- noticed the unusual entry after the White House distributed the list.

Wilson checked it out with officials, and the White House later distributed a shorter list from a different reporter that did not include the station chief's name.

In his account to CNN, Wilson said that when the media pool accompanying Obama arrived in Afghanistan, he asked White House officials for a list of who would be briefing the President.

A White House official then asked the military for a list to provide to the pool of journalists. The official got an e-mail back from the military with a subject line, "manifest for briefing for pool," Wilson told CNN.

That e-mail was forwarded to Wilson, and he proceeded to copy and paste it for the pool report. Wilson then sent it to the White House official, who sent the report to the distribution list that reaches some 6,000 journalists.

After the initial report was issued, Wilson noticed that the chief of station had been identified in the list. He flagged the White House official, who checked with the military and then said: "This is a problem."

The White House official asked if Wilson would write another pool report that would advise journalists to disregard the previous report, which contained the chief of station's name.

Wilson said he was open to the request and sent the White House a new report, but he was unsure if it got distributed.

According to Wilson, another pool report from a different reporter that was distributed later included details from Obama's speech to the troops, as well as the shorter list of names that excluded the CIA official and a note saying, "This is the correct list of participants."

Rep. Peter King, R-New York, called the accidental outing "unpardonable."

"This is something that they had a chance to look at and look at again, and they still allowed it to be out," he told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" Tuesday night.

"To me, it's unforgivable and the message has to be sent that this type of incompetence -- six years into an administration -- is just inexcusable."

A station chief heads the CIA's office in a foreign country, establishing a relationship with its host intelligence service and overseeing agency activities. The identity of station chiefs, like most CIA officers, are rarely disclosed to protect them and their ability to operate secretly.

In the most recent case of a spy being outed, the Bush administration infamously leaked the name of former CIA officer Valerie Plame to a journalist in 2003. Plame, who resigned from the CIA after the incident, tweeted on Monday that the White House's mistake this past weekend was "astonishing."

No one was punished for leaking Plame's CIA role to the media. Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about the Plame leak. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.

Top U.S. spy pulled from Pakistan after terror threats

CNN's Jim Acosta, Ashley Killough and Matt Hoye contributed to this report.

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