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A dangerous leak

WHATEVER THE legal outcome of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of officials who disclosed the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, it is already evident that they have caused a great deal of harm.

They have surely compromised intelligence sources and methods, but that is not all. In carrying a bureaucratic feud to excessive lengths, they also fritter away the unity of purpose that President Bush has properly invoked as a necessity in combating international terrorism. And the shifting strategems of an attempted coverup have begun to inflict harm on Bush's presidency.

If they destroyed the carefully constructed and expensively maintained persona given to what the CIA calls a NOC -- an agent with non-official cover, who lacks the protections afforded by a diplomatic passport -- Bush's political strategist Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, crossed what should be a bright red line.

Whenever a spy's cover is revealed, a chain of setbacks ensues. Foreign intelligence services then review everything they know about the undercover officer who was operating in their country. Such a review can lead not only to the discovery of informants who may have been recruited by the outed CIA officer but also to an understanding of the practices and techniques used by an undercover figure such as Plame, who posed as a businesswoman abroad. After one undercover CIA officer is exposed, others inevitably have a harder time persuading potential sources to pass secrets about their government's -- or their terrorist network's -- plans and capabilities.

Once before, Plame was caught up in a case illustrating how costly it can be for a CIA officer to be in danger of having her cover exposed. The agency called Plame home in 1997 in fear that Aldrich Ames, the notorious Soviet mole inside the CIA, had revealed her true identity to his KGB handlers. At least 10 people were executed by the Soviets as a consequence of Ames's disclosure of CIA identities.

Such betrayals might have been expected in the Cold War. They should not occur because political operatives in the White House want to tarnish the reputation of a critic or settle scores with a CIA they may regard as too reluctant to tailor its analyses to the talking points of a vice president or a president.

Still ahead is the harm that disclosure of Plame's cover could do to Bush. Did Bush know that Rove and Libby -- or whoever the sources were -- betrayed Plame's cover and with it the CIA front company that supposedly employed her? Or was the president oblivious? Bush may soon have to choose between the role of participant in a coverup or an out-of-the-loop chief executive.

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