Ex-colleagues doubt CIA analyst leaked secrets

April 23, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In 1998, when President Bill Clinton ordered military strikes against a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan, Mary O. McCarthy, a senior intelligence officer assigned to the White House, warned the president that the plan relied on inconclusive intelligence, two former government officials said.

McCarthy's reservations did not stop the attack on the factory, which was carried out in retaliation for al-Qaida's bombing of two American embassies in East Africa. But they illustrated her willingness to challenge intelligence data and methods endorsed by her bosses at the CIA.

On Thursday, the CIA fired McCarthy, 61, accusing her of leaking information to reporters about overseas prisons operated by the agency in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks. But despite McCarthy's independent streak, some former colleagues say they cannot imagine McCarthy as a leaker of classified information.

As a senior National Security Council aide for intelligence from 1996 to 2001, she was responsible for guarding some of the nation's most sensitive secrets.

"We're talking about a person with great integrity who played by the book and, as far as I know, never deviated from the rules," said Steven Simon, a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration who worked closely with McCarthy.

Others said it was possible that McCarthy - who began attending law school at night several years ago, made a contribution to Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and had announced her intention to retire from the CIA - had grown increasingly disenchanted with the often harsh and extra-legal methods adopted by the Bush administration for handling al-Qaida prisoners and felt she had no alternative except to go to the press.

If in fact McCarthy was the leaker, said Richard J. Kerr, a former CIA deputy director, "I have no idea what her motive was, but there is a lot of dissension within the agency and it seems to be a rather unhappy place." Kerr called McCarthy "quite a good, substantive person on the issues I dealt with her on."

She was known as a low-key professional during her time at the White House who paid special attention to preventing leaks of classified information and covert operations, several current and former government officials said. When she disagreed with decisions on intelligence operations, they said, she registered her complaints through internal government channels.

Some former intelligence officials who worked with McCarthy saw her as a persistent obstacle to aggressive anti-terrorism efforts.

"She was always of the view that she would rather not get her hands dirty with covert action," said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official, who said he was in meetings with McCarthy where she voiced doubts about reports that the factory had ties to al-Qaida and was secretly producing substances for chemical weapons.

In the case of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, her concerns may have been well-founded. Sudanese officials and the plant's owner denied any connection to al-Qaida.

In the aftermath of the attack, the internal White House debate over whether the intelligence reports about the plant were accurate spilled into the press. Eventually, Clinton administration officials conceded that the hardest evidence used to justify striking the plant was a soil sample that seemed to indicate the presence of a chemical used in making VX gas.

There is no evidence that McCarthy was involved in any disclosure to the press about the incident, but she was concerned enough that she wrote a formal letter dissenting to Clinton, two former officials said.

Over the last decade, McCarthy came to have one foot in the secret world of intelligence and another in the public world of policy.

She went from lower-level analyst working in obscurity at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to someone at home "downtown," as Washington is called by agency veterans, where policy is more openly fought over and leaks are far more common.

McCarthy joined the CIA in 1984 as an intelligence analyst for Africa. In the late 1980s, she was promoted to management, taking over as chief of the Central America and Caribbean section, though she had no previous experience in the region, said a former officer who worked with her.

By 1991, she was working as deputy to one of the agency's most senior analysts, Charles E. Allen, whose job as "National Intelligence Officer for Warning" was to anticipate major national security threats. McCarthy took over the job from Allen in 1994 and moved to the Clinton White House two years later.

Rand Beers, who at the time was Clinton's senior intelligence aide on the National Security Council, said he hired McCarthy to be his deputy. "Anybody who works for Charlie Allen and then replaces him has got to be good," said Beers, who went on to serve as an adviser to Kerry's campaign in 2004. McCarthy took over from Beers as the senior director for intelligence programs in 1998.

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