In late 2005–even as the CIA destroyed the secret interrogation tapes–I was completing a book on the abuses of secrecy. I had often heard the name Jose spoken by journalistic colleagues who covered the agency and by those within the CIA, but they never mentioned his last name. It was said to be forbidden because he was covert.
That struck many of us reporters as strange, given that Jose, once a case officer and Latin America division chief, was no longer in the field. Indeed, he was now a top bureaucrat, a manager of the nation’s covert ranks, overseeing thousands of intelligence operatives overseas. Unlike most of his predecessors whose names were not only known but widely publicized, his was veiled. According such covert status to the manager of such a prominent governmental entity represented a shrewd, if not cynical, ploy by the agency.
But it was also an anemic and patently disingenuous attempt to keep his identity “secret.” I put the word “secret” in quotes given that his full name was anything but to scores of journalists, members of Congress and thousands of CIA employees. But more of this in a moment.
From the CIA’s vantage point, there was ample motivation not to want his name in the public domain, given the nefarious activities of the agency in 2005–extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, secret overseas prisons and a host of other undertakings deemed highly controversial and on the edge of legality. Jose was at the very crossroads of such activities, but by masking his identity in a pseudo-covert role, it helped to obstruct the public’s ability to assign accountability, to inquire into the details of such matters and to attach a human face to policies and practices that might well offend the nation’s conscience, not to mention expose them to possible prosecution. It was a secrecy born not of national security concerns but of expedience–a dodge, if you will.
And so when I called the CIA in 2005, I said I was considering including Jose’s last name and middle initial in my book. It had seemed bizarre that he should appear in so many American papers and news reports simply as Jose, a convention that made the US press corps complicit in the ruse that sheltered a senior bureaucrat from public scrutiny. The name Jose had appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Christian Science Monitor, on Fox News and in numerous other journalistic venues. To the uninitiated, the widespread use of Jose’s first name suggested a level of familiarity, even affection, and created a certain clubbiness that included reporters and operatives but excluded ordinary citizens.
The CIA spokeswoman who fielded my call that day listened as I explained what I intended to write. She then issued an ominous warning. If I included Jose’s last name in my book, she said, the matter would be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution as a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. The word “jail” was referenced. She also, without so much as a hint of irony, referred to the ongoing legal travails of one I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, then embroiled in the Valerie Plame affair.