In the latest in a lengthening series of flaps about leaks, authorized and unauthorized, of secret information from the Bush administration, the CIA has fired a long-serving employee for unauthorized contacts with journalists and disclosing classified information.

In a town with a lot of spies and a lot of journalists, it’s hard to keep them apart so it would be interesting to know what kind of contact the CIA considers acceptable. But a spy agency can’t simply turn a blind eye toward its employees giving away the family secrets.

The employee who was fired, Mary McCarthy, was fired for having been in contact with Dana Priest, The Washington Post reporter who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning series about secret, U.S.-run prisons in Eastern Europe. Two points here: The Bush administration has never disputed the accuracy of those stories, and if their government is running clandestine prison camps, Americans ought to know about it.

In the ordinary course of events, this would be a straightforward story: Employee illegally leaks; employee gets fired.

But the Bush administration has played so many games with secrecy that it no longer gets the benefit of the doubt on its version of events. And the circumstances of the firing do give grounds for skepticism.

First, McCarthy, through an attorney for a heavy-hitting Washington law firm, categorically denies leaking any information and says she never had access to the information she is accused of leaking. She could be expected to say this, but the agency is in a position to really trash her if she is lying. Former co-workers who can talk freely speak highly of her as a person and an agent; she does not appear to have been a malcontent or troublemaker.

Second, McCarthy, 61, was fired 10 days from retirement. She filed in December for retirement April 30, not to write a kiss-and-tell book, but to take up a second career in family law. It is not bureaucratically implausible that someone decided that since McCarthy was out the door anyway, why not make her an example?

And there are possible political implications. She was served on President Clinton’s National Security Council and donated to John Kerry’s presidential campaign. If she had a political motivation to leak, might not a Republican administration have equal motivation to purge a Democrat from its ranks? We do know that they play that kind of hardball. Valerie Plame’s career might not be the only casualty.

One hopes that this is an open-and-shut case of an agency trying to impose discipline in its ranks, but given all that’s gone before, it’s hard to dismiss the notion that there’s more here than meets the eye.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,