A not-so-secret mission

Back in 1982, Congress passed a law designed to guard against the disclosure of the names of U.S. spies. The lawmakers acted because two obscure publications, “CounterSpy” and the “Covert Action Information Bulletin,” were printing the names of undercover CIA officers.

But the Intelligence Identities Protection Act has been difficult to enforce because covert agents are narrowly defined under the statute, government officials cannot be prosecuted unless they intentionally leak names, and people outside the government -- journalists or others who name spies -- run afoul of the law only if they do so as part of “a pattern of activities.”

Congress’ effort to grapple with the issue, as well as the problems it faced in crafting the law, illustrate the hazards of running secret intelligence operations in a democracy. Government officials are not supposed to leak the names of secret agents, especially if there is a hint of politics in the revelation. Witness the leak to the media of the name of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA officer whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had aroused the ire of the Bush White House.

Forests were cut down for the newsprint used in reporting and commenting on the Plame case, which led to the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. President Bush subsequently commuted his prison sentence.

But when the CIA outed its top spy earlier this month, virtually no one in the media noticed. What’s going on?

The CIA desperately needs minority officers, spies from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, with language skills, who can blend in when dispatched to foreign countries.

Welcome to the bizarre case of Jose Rodriguez.

On Aug. 8, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, in a statement to employees posted on the agency’s website, identified Rodriguez as the director of the National Clandestine Service. As such, he was in charge of the CIA’s spies around the world. Until that moment, the identity of the 30-year veteran spy had been a closely guarded secret.

“Jose. . . sought recently to have his operational cover lifted,” Hayden told the employees, “and that, indeed, has proved to be possible. He is no longer undercover.”

Hayden took the unusual step of outing Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, so he could participate on a panel on ethnic “diversity as an operational imperative” at a conference on border security in El Paso whomped up by Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Rodriguez became the agency’s clandestine service chief after the upheaval at the CIA under its previous director, Porter Goss, one of Reyes’ predecessors as chairman of the House Intelligence panel. Goss brought with him a coterie of congressional aides who clashed with career spies. Steven R. Kappes, then the agency’s top spy -- the officer credited with persuading Libya’s Moammar Kadafi to give up his nuclear bomb program -- quit in 2004 when he was ordered to demote his deputy, Michael Sulick.

Goss selected Rodriguez, then head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, to replace Kappes. Less than two years later, Goss was forced out as CIA director by the White House.

In outing Rodriguez, Hayden praised his “operational skill” and “reputation for leadership.” Rodriguez, who compared losing his cover to “dropping trousers” in public, told the security conference that the intelligence agency needed people “of diverse ethnic backgrounds, with different languages and cultural backgrounds.” He said only 14% of CIA officers are members of minority groups.

The CIA, criticized by the 9/11 commission for its lack of language skills and diversity, has been emphasizing minority recruitment of late. Hayden saw Rodriguez, with his Latino roots, as proof of the agency’s willingness to embrace minority officers. The CIA director’s decision to out him was made easier by the fact that Rodriguez had told Hayden that he planned to retire later this year.

Inside headquarters, Rodriguez is well regarded. “Everybody likes him,” one former CIA official said, “although he is not considered a strong case officer.”

Rodriguez spent most of his career in Latin America, including Mexico. In the pecking order of the clandestine service, Latin America is viewed as something of a backwater; the big players work in other parts of the world. “He wasn’t in Europe, or Asia, the more important stations,” a CIA man explained.

Even so, many rank-and-file colleagues were not displeased at his selection to head the clandestine service. But as a poster boy for diversity, Rodriguez does have some, well, drawbacks. He has a checkered past.

Ten years ago, Rodriguez was fired as chief of the CIA’s Latin America division after he sought to intervene to help a friend who had been arrested in the Dominican Republic for possession of cocaine and illegal weapons. The friend had also worked for the CIA in the Dominican Republic.

Although Rodriguez didn’t ask that the charges against his friend be dropped, he contacted the CIA station chief on the island and asked him to speak to local authorities about the case. The CIA referred Rodriguez’s actions to the Justice Department to determine whether he had been committed a crime, but it found no grounds to prosecute. Rodriguez was removed as division chief, although allowed to remain in the CIA. At the time, the CIA inspector general criticized Rodriguez for “a remarkable lack of judgment.” The demotion caused considerable grumbling inside the agency because, as one former officer put it, “Jose was very popular.”

Identifying covert operatives has always been a sensitive subject. Richard Welch, station chief in Athens, was shot and killed in 1975 after his name appeared in “CounterSpy” and the Greek press. He had rejected security advice and moved into the same house occupied by previous station chiefs, an address that was well known.

In the case of Jose Rodriguez, the director of the CIA felt that any criticism that might result from unmasking the top spy’s identity was outweighed by the need to emphasize the agency’s goal of recruiting officers from a variety of backgrounds. Once a bastion of Ivy Leaguers who had gone to the right East Coast prep schools, the agency now seems to be trying, however haltingly, to cast a wider net.

David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. He is the author of “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.”