WASHINGTON — From their earliest days, U.S. intelligence agencies have made it an article of faith to protect the identity of their secret agents. And in 1982, following a rash of malicious exposures, the CIA prevailed on Congress to make it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of such operatives.
So in 2003, when the name of a CIA arms proliferation specialist, Valerie Plame, surfaced in a newspaper column, the agency immediately demanded a Justice Department investigation.
But last week, as former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby went on trial in connection with the leak, it appeared that neither the CIA nor some other intelligence community insiders were all that tight-lipped about such supposedly sensitive matters.
When it came to talking to outsiders, the agent's identity was often treated as not much more than water-cooler dishing or cocktail party chatter.
A high-level CIA official dropped Plame's agency connection into a conversation with a White House aide who did not know Plame existed. Another CIA official confessed that it was only after he had mentioned the agent's name to an official outside the agency that he felt a twinge of regret -- a kind of belated "oops" -- over what he had done.
And former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, a possible witness in the Libby trial, has acknowledged discussing Plame with a reporter. Armitage, an old hand at dealing with sensitive intelligence matters, later told a friend that gabbing about Plame was "the dumbest thing he'd ever done in his life."
The agent's identity wound up being a subject of discussion inside Washington's sprawling national security community after it was unveiled in a syndicated newspaper column. Libby is accused of lying to federal investigators looking into who leaked Plame's name to the columnist.
Plame is the wife of former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, who publicly raised questions about the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The revelations thus far in Libby's trial suggest that, though U.S. officials -- especially within the Bush administration -- have publicly insisted that secrecy is crucial in national security matters, there is a backstage world inside the government where even the most basic rules for protecting sensitive information may be ignored.
In theory, sensitive intelligence is highly compartmentalized and shared only on a need-to-know basis with people who have been cleared to receive it.
That was hardly the case with Plame.
In one instance described last week, the CIA's then-chief public affairs officer, William Harlow, apparently brought her name up almost in passing during a 2003 telephone conversation with his counterpart in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
The White House official, Catherine J. Martin, then Cheney's director of communications, said, "It was a pleasant conversation. I had never spoken with him before."
Martin was calling about a report in the Washington Post that an unnamed diplomat had turned up evidence contradicting Bush administration claims about Iraq trying to get nuclear material from Niger. The story, and others that followed, said the diplomat had been sent to the African nation because of Cheney.
The vice president was upset over being linked to the venture, which undercut White House arguments about the Iraq threat.
Martin testified that Libby suggested she call Harlow.
"I remember talking about press reports about a former ambassador sent to Niger, and the press reports saying it was because of an inquiry by the vice president," she said.
"So I was saying, 'Who sent him? Who is this guy? And what are you saying to the press? It keeps getting reported that we sent him,' " Martin testified.
"Ultimately, I remember Bill Harlow saying his name was Joe Wilson, he was a charge in Baghdad and his wife works over here."
Harlow, responding to an e-mail request, declined to comment, citing the pending trial.
Libby allegedly learned that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA from the agency's top expert on Iraq, who testified Wednesday that he regretted passing along the tip.
Former CIA official Robert Grenier said he gave Libby the information. He said he had not remembered doing so when he initially spoke with investigators but recalled it later because he had a lingering feeling that he had done something he regretted.
"I recall feeling briefly guilty about it, that I had said too much," Grenier said. "By saying that Joe Wilson's wife was working in CIA, in effect I was revealing the identity of a CIA officer."
The law does not forbid all disclosures. It targets only leaks of identities of covert operatives and incidents where the recipient does not have a security clearance to receive the information. Libby, as Cheney's national security advisor and chief of staff, presumably had high-level security clearances.