WASHINGTON — In 1975, Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, was murdered in front of his home as he returned with his wife from a Christmas party.
Intelligence officials said Welch’s identity had been compromised by stories in Greek and American news outlets. A Communist terror group known as 17N was blamed for the assassination.
Welch’s death and other incidents, including an attack on the home of an undercover officer in Jamaica in 1980, prompted the passage of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime to reveal the identities of undercover officers serving the CIA abroad. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1982.
Now, decades later, the CIA is seeking to widen those protections.
A provision included in current legislation making its way through both the House and Senate would expand the definition of a “covert agent” to potentially include officers or contractors working within the United States. It would also extend the identity protection indefinitely. Under current law it expires five years after the agent leaves their position.
The agency’s letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee justifying the request, which was obtained by the New York Times, read in part: “Particularly with the lengths organizations such as WikiLeaks are willing to go to obtain and release sensitive national security information, as well as incidents related to past Agency programs, such as the RDI [retention, detention and interrogation] investigation, the original congressional reasoning mentioned above for a narrow definition of ‘covert agent’ no longer remains valid.”
Proponents of the change argue the added protections are necessary in a digital age, when publications like WikiLeaks can access and publish reams of data on CIA personnel, past and present. Officers are prohibited from directly gathering foreign intelligence within the U.S., but they serve in sensitive jobs doing analysis, cyber operations and recruitment of American businesspeople and other professionals to help gather intelligence — and they might go undercover abroad in the future.
However, activists are concerned the provision, which is written extremely broadly, could allow CIA officers or contractors to escape legal scrutiny indefinitely as well as prevent journalists from writing about agency activities and personnel. Nonprofit transparency groups Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight have led an effort to raise awareness in Congress on the potential change, including publishing a letter on Monday evening, signed by 29 organizations, asking Congress not to pass the revisions.