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But while she may no longer have been a clandestine operative, she was still under protected status. A U.S. official told TIME that Plame was indeed considered covert for the purposes of the Intelligence Identities Protection law. And even if the leak was not illegal, intelligence officials argue, it is not defensible. "I'm beyond disgusted," a CIA official said last week. I am especially angry about the b_______ explanations that she is not a covert agent. That is an official status, and there are lots of people in this building who are on that status. It's not up to the Republican Party to determine when that status will end for an agent."
Whatever the damage to Plame, there remains the cost paid by the CIA generally. In the wake of the disclosure, foreign intelligence services were known to have retraced her steps and contacts to discover more about how the CIA operates in their countries. Outside of a James Bond movie, spies rarely steal secrets themselves; they recruit foreigners to do it for them. That often means bribing a government official to break his country's laws and pass state secrets to the CIA. "It becomes extremely hard if you're working overseas and recruiting [foreign] agents knowing that some sloth up in the Executive Branch for political reasons can reveal your identity," says Jim Marcinkowski, who served four years in the agency and is now the deputy city attorney for Royal Oak, Mich. "Certainly this kind of information travels around the world very quickly. And it raises the level of fear of coming in contact with the United States for any reason." On the other hand, some critics charge that the agency tends to overstate the value of its undercover operations, whose lapses in recent years have certainly been the subject of much debate.
Naturally that's not how Joe Wilson sees it. Back at the house, he has lit a cigar and is sitting on the back porch, claiming vindication while defending himself against charges that all along he has been a partisan hack with an agenda and not a whistle-blower who ran afoul of the White House. "To have my character and integrity impugned not on facts but on the volume of their voice and blast faxes and blast e-mails is beyond the pale," he says. "All Americans should worry about a government that reacts in such a fashion." Later in the conversation, he offers, unsolicited, two copies of his book, one of which he inscribes to Matt Cooper. Asked how it's doing, he says, "Really well," and glances at the spot on the cover where it says THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER. "And it's going to do even better in the next three months." --Reported by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Sally B. Donnelly, Viveca Novak and Douglas Waller/ Washington