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White House mistakenly identifies CIA chief in Afghanistan

May 26, 2014

The CIA’s top officer in Kabul was exposed Saturday by the White House when his name was inadvertently included on a list provided to news organizations of senior U.S. officials participating in President Barack Obama’s surprise visit with U.S. troops.

The White House recognized the mistake and quickly issued a revised list that did not include the individual, who had been identified on the initial release as the “Chief of Station” in Kabul, a designation used by the CIA for its highest-ranking spy in a country.

The disclosure marked a rare instance in which a CIA officer working overseas had his cover — the secrecy meant to protect his actual identity — pierced by his own government. The only other recent case came under significantly different circumstances, when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the George W. Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.

The Washington Post is withholding the name of the CIA officer at the request of Obama administration officials who warned that the officer and his family could be at risk if the name were published. The CIA and the White House declined to comment.

The CIA officer was one of 15 senior U.S. officials identified as taking part in a military briefing for Obama at Bagram air base, a sprawling military compound north of Kabul. Others included U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in the country.

Their names were included on a list of participants in the briefing provided by U.S. military officials to the White House press office.

The list was circulated by email to reporters who traveled to Afghanistan with Obama, and disseminated further when it was included in a “pool report,” or summary of the event meant to be shared with other news organizations, including foreign media, not taking part in the trip.

In this case, the pool report was filed by Washington Post White House bureau chief Scott Wilson. Wilson said he had copied the list from the email provided by White House press officials and included it in a report that was sent to a distribution list with more than 6,000 recipients.

Wilson said that after the report was distributed, he noticed the unusual reference to the station chief and asked White House press officials in Afghanistan whether they had intended to include that name.

Initially, the press office raised no objection, apparently because military officials had provided the list to distribute to news organizations. But senior White House officials realized the mistake and scrambled to issue an updated list without the CIA officer’s name. The mistake, however, already was being noted on Twitter, although without the station chief’s name.

It is unclear whether the disclosure will force the CIA to pull the officer out of Afghanistan. As the top officer in one of the agency’s largest overseas posts, with hundreds of officers, analysts and other subordinates, the station chief in Kabul probably has been identified to senior Afghan government officials and would not ordinarily take part in clandestine missions beyond the U.S. Embassy compound.

The identities of at least three CIA station chiefs in Pakistan have been exposed in recent years. In one case, a CIA officer became a target of death threats after his cover was blown, forcing the agency to rush him out of the country.

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