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.
And so I backed off and in my book referred to the mystery surrounding Jose’s name without identifying him.
But the invocation of his covert status was already a case study in the ludicrous. Anyone in 2005 could have found his name simply by Googling “Jose” and “clandestine service.” Indeed, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (with billions of hits a month) identified him at the time by his full name with an accompanying profile. His name had also surfaced in the foreign press, including the Asia Times. It seems the only ones denied his identity were Americans. As an abuse of secrecy, it was part of a constellation of abuses in which the veil descended not because of bona fide security concerns but because of domestic political sensitivities or potential ethical and legal controversies. Are we to imagine that the CIA honestly believed that Al Qaeda was not resourceful enough to uncover what was already on Wikipedia?
Jose’s covert status was at best illusory and self-serving. The CIA would have the public believe that his identity was cloaked to protect “sources and methods,” but this makes little sense. Within months of my book’s publication, the CIA lifted Jose’s cover and identified him fully: Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. Nothing had changed between my 2005 inquiry and the book’s publication–nothing except this: he retired.
These days his full name appears on the front pages and on network and cable news. It turns out that the not-so-mysterious Jose is now at the center of a firestorm as the official who gave the order to destroy the CIA interrogation tapes chronicling the waterboarding of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. Now, instead of hiding behind a veil of secrecy, he seeks a veil of another kind–immunity, in exchange for Congressional testimony. The reason for destroying the tapes was also veiled in secrecy and deception, as if the inventive CIA were not capable of modifying the tapes to conceal the identities of those conducting the interrogations.
Jose’s story is steeped in irony and well deserving of a footnote. It was little more than a week ago that American newspapers carried the obituary of Philip Agee, the renegade CIA operative who named names, outing scores of agency operatives in his 1975 book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary.
He died in Havana, a pariah to the CIA and a man whose very name had become synonymous with a disregard for secrecy. That episode helped lead to the passing of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, invoked to protect Jose’s identity. But three decades later, the CIA need look no further than its own abusive invocations of secrecy to understand the growing public cynicism, the erosion of confidence or the increasing contempt for a system that fails to distinguish between secrets legitimate and otherwise.