Ex-CIA chiefs scold New York Times for outing secret officers

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A group of 20 former leaders of the CIA issued a scathing criticism of The New York Times on Monday for “outing” the identities of three top officials whose names had largely been a secret.

The former agency heads “profoundly disagree” with the newspaper’s rationale for disclosing the names of the three officials, former CIA chiefs Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden and other agency directors and deputy directors wrote to the newspaper on Monday.

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“The media should question policy makers, including senior politically appointed leaders of the intelligence community, about these efforts,” they wrote. “But nothing is gained by ‘outing’ career operations officers, who carry out such policies.”

Instead, publishing a secret identity makes “the name accessible to ISIS, Al Qaeda and every other murderer on the planet,” the former officials wrote, using an acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The objection was to a New York Times story published late last month, which came in the wake of the Obama administration’s admission that a drone strike had accidentally killed two Western hostages.

The story identified by name three officials who have been integral to the agency’s development of its lethal drone program. Among those was the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, a chain-smoking convert to Islam who once led the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and inspired a character in the Hollywood blockbuster “Zero Dark Thirty.” All three of those men were officially undercover officers and are protected by law.

The CIA had asked the Times not to publish the names of the officials, but the newspaper declined the request “because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others,” it said in its story.

In a subsequent interview published on Lawfare, a blog about national security law, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said the decision was about “accountability” and made, in part, because the drone program is a “military operation,” even if it's run through the CIA.

A "really remarkable” event had occurred, Baquet said. “The President of the United States got up and apologized for a mishap in the drone program, occasioning a story that looked more deeply at the drone program. And I think that warrants identifying the guy who ran it.”

The names were also known to governments in other countries and had been on the Internet before. Outlets, including Gawker, had previously published the name of the ex-National Counterterrorism Center head, as had bloggers and security experts online.

In a statement to The Hill, CIA spokesman Dean Boyd indicated that the agency had no role in the new letter and declined to comment on the men’s identities.  

“The letter was written at the initiative of the former senior CIA officials who signed the letter," he said. “We have no comment on whether the persons named by the New York Times have any affiliation with CIA.

“As a general matter, the identities of undercover CIA officers are protected by federal statute,” Boyd added, referring to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which protects undercover officers.