There is a reason that outing a CIA NOC is a crime. I talked about some of the implications of that in a previous post here, but Gary Hart has an eloquent take on the issue in today’s HuffPo that is certainly worth a read.

Whatever your feelings about the CIA, it is a dangerous job and not one for which most Americans are lining up these days. I am well aware that there have been numerous episodes of problems, to put it very mildly, with particular agents or missions, but that does not mean that every person at the CIA is tainted as a result, any more than some of the members of the Bush Administration can be held as a taint to every single person doing public service work today.

Some members of the CIA, and other intelligence agencies do the work that helps to keep us safe: through information analysis, information gathering through a network of hard-earned assets in foreign countries or groups hostile to our safety, and by putting their lives directly on the line as deep cover agents pretending to be terrorists or criminals in order to gather the necessary information to stop a future attack on our soil or our interests before it ever happens.

Hart addresses this particular issue with a story that has an ironic twist. Unfortunately, he sources the information incorrectly to Phillip Agee as being the person who outed the agent in question — on this occasion that wasn’t correct, it was someone else. But that doesn’t negate the overarching story told of the agent’s outing and subsequent murder at the hands of the very people he was trying to monitor.

Richard Welch, a brilliant Harvard-educated classicist, had been stationed in Greece as CIA station chief only a few months before he was murdered, by a radical Greek terrorist organization called the 17th of November, in the doorway of his house in Athens on Dec. 23, 1975.

In this world of intrigue and shadows, there are very real consequences for actions that expose agents. Very real.

No matter how many times some apologist sits in front of the camera or hides behind the anonymity of “Administration ally” in print, it does not change the fact that taking any action which exposes any part of a covert network weakens our national defense. No matter what motive. No matter how accidental. No matter how much they may regret it now.

And those assets and agents working alongside or under the exposed agent face the same exposure if they can be traced back to each other in any way.

To have this done by someone accidentally (or even on purpose for motives that they think, however misguided, are pure ones), is bad enough. These CIA agents are human beings with families, and often with a very patriotic and difficult history of working for this country without falling into any of the darker conduct which is so rightly criticised.

When the person who outs you is a member of your own government, and it is done for political payback purposes — then what does that do?

The political irony of all this is that conservative elements in America have always proclaimed themselves more concerned than anyone else with national security, the sanctity of classified information, protection of sources, support for our intelligence and military services, and so on. At radical times in our past, irresponsible leftist groups thought it was their duty to try to reveal the names of CIA agents. Now, under a conservative administration, it is these conservative national security champions who are saying, with regard to the “outing” of a CIA undercover officer, “Where’s the crime?”

There is further irony in the fact that now the premier intelligence agency of the United States, the CIA, is in utter disarray. Morale is desperately low. Many of the best career officers are leaving. As the source of unbiased professional intelligence, the CIA has been diminished and pushed aside by the Department of Defense. This at a time when it is critical to national security to have the best possible intelligence to protect us from terrorism….

So, there’s the crime. To casually and willfully endanger the life of an undercover CIA agent is a felony. You either believe in taking the laws of the United States seriously or you do not. Citizens – even highly placed ones – do not get to pick and choose which laws they will obey and which they will not. Miller and her publisher may think she’s a hero, but I don’t. It is well established that there is no First Amendment protection for a journalist or anyone else to withhold evidence of a crime.

Well said. But the twist in this story? I did promise there was a twist.

There is one final irony to this story. On Christmas Eve in 1975, I got a call at my home from the director of the CIA, William Colby. He asked if I would intervene with the White House to obtain presidential approval to have Welch buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a hero fallen in service to his country. I quickly called President Ford’s chief of staff on Colby’s behalf and made the request. Within two hours, the president had agreed to sign the order permitting Welch to be buried at Arlington.

The chief of staff’s name was Richard Cheney.