WASHINGTON -- The CIA has fired a senior officer for leaking classified information to news organizations, including material for Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in The Washington Post that said the agency maintained a secret network of prisons overseas for terrorism suspects.
The firing, announced yesterday, is the latest crackdown on CIA and Bush administration officials accused of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
The CIA would not disclose the identity of the officer who was fired, citing Privacy Act protections. But current and former intelligence officials identified the officer as Mary O. McCarthy, a former White House aide who until this week held a senior position in the CIA's inspector general's office.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano would not comment on the identity of the employee but said the employee had admitted having contacts with the news media and discussing classified information.
"That is a violation of the secrecy agreement that everyone signs as a condition of employment with the CIA," Gimigliano said.
The intelligence officials said McCarthy made her admission after she failed a polygraph test conducted as part of one of the CIA's investigations into leaks.
The officials said that McCarthy could face criminal prosecution and that the Justice Department has been apprised of developments in the internal CIA investigaations.
One official indicated that McCarthy had engaged in a "pattern of contacts" with more than one reporter.
McCarthy has held high-level intelligence positions in her two-decade career, according to a short biography on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank where she was a visiting fellow in 2001 before returning to intelligence work.
The biography says McCarthy was senior director for intelligence programs on the White House's National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and, until July 2001, for President Bush.Previously, she held positions with the National Intelligence Council, formerly based at the CIA, which is responsible for producing assessments on major national security issues.
McCarthy could not be reached for comment.
The dismissal is likely to send fresh waves of anxiety through the CIA, which has been battered in recent years for intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and erroneous assessments of Iraq before the 2003 invasion.
A number of high-level CIA officers have quit over confrontations with senior aides to Porter J. Goss, the CIA director.
Goss has stressed upholding the CIA's tradition of secrecy and has often complained publicly about the damage caused by leaks.
In recent congressional testimony, Goss said, "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information."
Goss was referring in part to stories in The Post last year alleging that the CIA was operating secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe where high-value terrorist operatives were being detained and interrogated.
Post reporter Dana Priest was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for those stories in the beat reporting category.
The stories triggered a fierce reaction in Europe, including investigations into whether governments were secretly cooperating with a CIA program by allowing the agency to use European facilities and airstrips to detain and transfer prisoners to other countries known to engage in torture.
U.S. intelligence officials said disclosures about that program and other operations in recent months have been major setbacks in the United States' ability to win cooperation from European countries and other allies in combating terrorism.
"When liaison countries agree to do things with us and we can't keep that secret, that is damaging," a U.S. official said. "They're much less willing to cooperate on a wide range of subjects."
The current and former U.S. intelligence officials said McCarthy was fired Thursday and escorted from the agency's campus in Langley, Va.
A former senior CIA official said that in an e-mail to agency workers yesterday, Goss said the dismissed employee had failed a polygraph test and subsequently admitted making unauthorized disclosures.
CIA employees are subjected to polygraph examinations every five years as part of routine evaluations for their security clearances. But several officials said that McCarthy had been subjected to a polygraph test specifically conducted to question agency employees about whether they were involved in leaks of information that have appeared in the news media in recent months.
Several former CIA officials said the agency's internal investigations have focused on employees who were in a position to know details about the agency's detention operations.
Whenever a program is as closely guarded as the detention operation, a former CIA official said, staff members must sign non-disclosure agreements before being briefed on the program.