Four had already left the CIA, and they spent the evening catching up on what they'd done during their clandestine careers, as well as the jobs and moves that followed. But even though Plame's "cover" had been cracked wide open, her dinner companions didn't pry for details. Even in that tight circle, no one wanted to spill any more secrets.
The Plame case brought intense new scrutiny on the White House last week amid disclosures that President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, is a central figure in the controversy surrounding the "outing" of Plame to the press.
Although often cast in binary terms - an operative is either under cover or not - there are distinct categories of cover that CIA operatives use, and an almost endless list of components. Some cover is tissue-thin and disposable. Other arrangements are so layered and deep that they anticipate hostile probing of every facet of a person's life.
Plame's cover - in which she posed as a private energy consultant while working for a CIA department tracking weapons proliferation - was somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
Still, her clandestine career is over, and the outrage among many current and former case officers lingers because cover is something they go to such great lengths to protect.
"It doesn't matter whether he used her name," Marcinkowski said of the recent disclosures surrounding Rove. "It doesn't matter what her status was. He gave up a piece of the puzzle, and he had no right to do it."
The majority of the agency's undercover officers work in the clandestine service - the branch that operates stations around the world, recruiting spies, tracking terrorists and carrying out covert missions designed to influence events or even topple governments.
Plame's identity was revealed in print two years ago by syndicated columnist and conservative commentator Robert Novak. But cover can be compromised in a number of ways.
More recently, a host of CIA aliases and cover arrangements were exposed in embarrassing fashion by an Italian magistrate. The judge was seeking to prosecute agency operatives for their alleged role in kidnapping a radical Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003 and transferring him to Egypt.
Court records released in the case list the names, phone numbers and other details drawn from travel documents used by 19 suspected CIA operatives accused of taking part in the operation. Most of the names seem to be aliases, but the documents appear to contain the real identities of a senior CIA officer based in Milan, and two others in the United States.
The documents suggest that three of the operatives represented themselves as employees of a company called "Coachmen Enterprises" in Washington, D.C. A search of public directories and business records turned up no listing for such a firm.
Another operative, who used the name "Eliana Castaldo," is linked in the documents to a telephone number in Pennsylvania. Several calls by a reporter were answered by different female voices offering inconsistent answers to basic questions. One refused to identify the business, a second said she was with an answering service, and a third said the number was that of "Washburn and Company." In each case, the speaker said there was no Eliana Castaldo at that number.
The vast majority of the agency's overseas officers are under what is known as "official cover," which means they are posing as employees of another government agency. The State Department allows hundreds of its positions in embassies around the world to be occupied by CIA officers representing themselves as diplomats.
A more rare and dangerous job category is "nonofficial cover" - or NOC [pronounced "knock"] - in which CIA officers pose as employees of international corporations, as scientists or as members of other professions. Such covers tend to provide a plausible reason to work long periods overseas and come in contact with foreign nationals the agency wants to recruit.
Plame worked under official cover early in her career but moved to nonofficial, commercial cover during the 1990s, maintaining that status even after she returned from overseas to work at CIA headquarters. Federal election records show that in 1999 she listed as her employer a Boston firm named Brewster-Jennings & Associates, which former agency officials acknowledge was a front company.
NOCs are known for taking extreme risks as part of their work. If caught by a foreign intelligence service, they have no diplomatic immunity to protect them from prosecution under their host country's laws.
Often, even close relatives have to be shielded from the truth. One former NOC said it was particularly traumatic to inform his son, when the boy was in his mid-teens, that his father had been misleading him for years about his true line of work.
"He was pretty stunned," the former NOC said. "He was also disappointed that no, I didn't carry a gun, didn't get to meet pretty enemy spies and that my cell phone was just a cell phone."
Plame's husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, said the two met at a diplomatic party in 1997.
"But I didn't know what she did until we were well along in our courtship," he said, adding that her public outing continues to ripple through her private life. "People she has known for upwards of 20 years have all sort of had to go through this period of adjusting to who is the real Valerie Wilson."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.