In a city that lives for the whispered nugget of information, fired CIA analyst Mary McCarthy is viewed as both hero and villain.
Ask CIA Director Porter Goss, and he will tell you an officer he fired committed a grave offense damaging national security by talking to reporters and knowingly disclosing classified information.
Not so, argue McCarthy’s defenders, who contend that she had a stellar government career and is merely the victim of a Bush administration witch hunt for leakers.
Associates, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of her sensitive legal situation, say the CIA authorized McCarthy on a number of occasions to talk with reporters. However, the details and timing remain unclear, including whether that was ever true after Goss took over in September 2004.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck declined to comment on McCarthy specifically, citing the agency’s obligations under the Privacy Act. However, Dyck said the officer in question was not terminated for having authorized conversations with reporters. “It was for having unauthorized conversations with reporters,” she said.
It is not yet clear precisely what McCarthy did that led to the firing. In a statement on Thursday to CIA employees, Goss said that “a CIA officer has acknowledged having unauthorized discussions with the media, in which the officer knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence, including operational information.”
Last week, government officials indicated McCarthy was involved in providing information to reporters that included material used in The Washington Post’s award-winning report on a covert network of CIA prisons. Allegations of a Soviet-style gulag in Eastern Europe and other facilities sparked international condemnation and investigations.
Goss and others have said leaks have done dramatic damage to U.S. relationships with allies. He told Congress in February that his counterparts ask: “Mr. Goss, can’t you Americans keep a secret?”
But McCarthy’s attorney, Ty Cobb, defends her actions and says she was not the source for the Post story. “She did not leak any classified information, and she did not have access to the information apparently attributed to her by some government officials,” Cobb said.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano on Tuesday reaffirmed the agency’s position on the firing.
McCarthy, 61, got her start at the CIA in its Directorate of Intelligence _ the analysis division _ focusing on Africa and Latin America. By 1988, she landed her first management job as the Central American branch chief.
Former CIA officer Larry Johnson said he had trouble with her management style when he worked for her in 1988 and 1989. Part of his job was to collect cables of importance for the front office of the Middle America-Caribbean division. But she would assemble her own package, undermining his analysis, he said.
Yet Johnson, a critic of the Bush administration, defends McCarthy today. “This administration thinks just because you make a political contribution to some campaign, you are tainted,” he said. “This administration is trying to conduct a political purge.”
McCarthy has given $7,700 to Democratic campaigns in the past three election cycles; her husband has donated $2,500, according to public records. While CIA employees face restrictions on political activity under the Hatch Act, they are allowed to donate to candidates.
Johnson said McCarthy never suggested to him that she had a political view or shaped intelligence to conform to an ideology.
McCarthy went on to the National Intelligence Council, the government’s most senior analysis office, and then the Clinton White House, where she served as a senior intelligence adviser on the National Security Council staff.
McCarthy was not afraid to go against the grain. As the White House was considering al-Qaida targets to strike in retaliation for the 1998 African embassy bombings, McCarthy questioned the strength of the intelligence about a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. According to the Sept. 11 Commission, some officials believed al-Shifa was manufacturing a precursor to a nerve agent, with Osama bin Laden’s financial support.
“We will need much better intelligence on this facility before we seriously consider any options,” McCarthy said in a memo to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger outlining her concerns.
Berger told the commission he was worried about a possible chemical attack, if al-Shifa wasn’t attacked. With the Monica Lewinsky scandal consuming front pages, President Clinton decided to attack with cruise missiles there and in Afghanistan. He was accused of trying to distract from the scandal.
As House Intelligence chairman, Goss said in a March 2004 interview that he thought there had been a “lousy choice” of targets.
McCarthy left the National Security Council shortly after Bush took office in 2001.
She then went to law school at Georgetown University and was a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cobb said she announced her retirement from the CIA and hoped to practice public service law, working on adoptions.
The accusation of media contacts, however, has tainted a career that ended in the CIA inspector general’s office, where her work included investigations into allegations of agency involvement in torture at Iraqi prisons.
The National Whistleblower Center says McCarthy could have a strong case to contest her firing. House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., sees her actions differently.
“This person in the CIA thought that they were above the law,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They have put America at risk. They have put our troops on the front lines at risk.”