The White House is scrambling to contain the damage from inadvertently outing the top CIA official in Afghanistan, a rare blunder that potentially puts that individual at risk.
The official’s name, identified as “chief of station,” was included in the White House press office’s basic list of senior officials President Obama met with during his surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday. The list of 15 names apparently came first from the military, and was circulated by the White House press office.
The list then went to a much wider audience when it was included as part of what’s known as a “pool report,” which in this case was filed by The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson.
It was only after Wilson raised the issue with the White House, according to the Post, that officials sought to circulate a new list without the officer’s name. But by that point, the mistake already had been noted on Twitter.
“There’s simply no excuse for it,” John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox News on Tuesday, saying the blunder left him “speechless.”
“In a White House that is filled with press flacks … was there no one who understood the significance of what they were doing?” he said. “Somebody’s head should roll for this. … This is utter incompetence.”
FoxNews.com is not publishing the name of the chief of station.
The fact that it was circulated at all, though, raises security concerns — and distracts from Obama’s visit to Bagram air base meant to honor troops in advance of Memorial Day.
Several CIA station chiefs in Pakistan have been exposed during the course of the war in Afghanistan. One of them had to be removed from the country in 2010.
It’s unclear whether the administration will be forced to take that step here. Bolton noted that the official’s identity would have been known to some in the Afghan government anyway — though the exposure could also damage intelligence operations.
The most recent high-profile incident of a U.S. official exposing a CIA agent was the outing of operative Valerie Plame’s identity in 2003.
In this case, the original list circulated by the White House included several names of well-known public officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, as well as that of the chief of station.
According to the Post, Wilson noticed the reference to the station chief after he had already sent out the pool report.
When he raised the issue, the press office did not raise any objection, according to the Post. But the office later reportedly scrambled to send around a new list, without the officer’s name — apparently realizing the error.
“Soon after, I think that they talked to their bosses, and realized that it was not OK,” Wilson told The Guardian. “And they tried to figure out what to do about this, if there was a way to kind of un-ring the bell.”
Wilson said it appeared “very junior people” were just trying to follow an order without realizing the “ramifications.”
Wilson also said he wishes he had caught the mistake before sending out the list in the pool report.
“I wish I had, I regret it,” he reportedly said.