By: Allan Wolper
The telephone call came at 5 a.m., July 9, 1979. “Mr. Gossens, you should know that your name is all over the front pages this morning,” said a Marine from the United States Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. Gerry Gossens, the CIA chief of station in Pretoria, knew his diplomatic cover had been blown. The South African press had read a book, “Dirty Work 2: The CIA in Africa,” that included the biographies of 800 CIA officers. He was one of them.
“When a CIA agent is outed, it puts him, his family, and all of his diplomatic friends in danger,” Gossens, 72, said while sitting in his Salisbury, Vt., home, as he recalled the chaos of that morning.
Gossens moved quickly to make sure his children were safe. He phoned the principals at his kids’ schools to prepare them for any potential fallout and later picked up his 17-year-old son, who knew of his father’s double life, and his 16-year-old daughter, Christine, who was learning about it for the first time. “You don’t want to tell your kids you’re CIA until they’re old enough to handle it,” the former intelligence officer said.
The Gossens, also including his wife and another daughter, escaped physical harm partly because the South African govern ment had known about his dual role and insisted the papers were wrong. But his colleagues at the U.S. embassy who had not known that their congenial civil servant colleague was CIA felt betrayed. “Our friends at the embassy dropped all contact with us, and it became difficult going to diplomatic meetings,” he said.
That experience was why I went to see Gossens: I wanted to talk to a former CIA officer whose identity had been revealed by the media. I needed his take on the officials who named Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent, first revealed in Robert Novak’s syndicated column.
And most of all, I wanted his perspective on the press’ role in the CIA-leak controversy and whether he thought reporters who published the names of CIA agents should be prosecuted. Gossens had plenty to say.
He was aghast that the CIA leak and the alleged cover-up that followed was a plot hatched in or around a White House administered by the son of President George H.W. Bush — a former director of the intelligence agency. “I can’t believe President Bush’s father would have tolerated a leak like that while he was president,” said Gossens, a Democrat who was chief of station in Lusaka, Zambia, when the elder Bush ran the CIA. The older Bush “knew what an agent’s life was like,” Gossens said. “He knew the danger of doing something like that. He was respectful of agents. He was a good man.”
Gossens had hoped the former president might make some public statement deploring the CIA press leaks, but said he knew that wouldn’t happen: “How can you criticize your own son?”
The one-time officer is just as disturbed by the coverage of the Plame affair. “The most irritating thing about the press coverage of the case is that they keep saying that outing Plame doesn’t make a difference because she was in Washington,” Gossens said, referring to the fact that Plame had stopped her undercover activities more than five years ago.
“That is so arrogant,” he said, adding that the Intelligence Indentities Protection Act of 1982 “was passed because CIA agents who were once undercover have a problem no matter where they are stationed now.
“Any journalist who says the law doesn’t apply to them is hair-splitting — and even if it doesn’t, they are being unethical by identifying an agent,” Gossens added, noting that there was little angry reaction to Novak’s column on Plame until two months after it was published. He misses the days when journalists were sensitive to an agent’s cover: “We would sometimes swap information with foreign correspondents. They knew what we did, but they kept that information secret.”
Gossens said he retired “undercover” from the CIA in 1980, one year after he was outed, and returned to Vermont. In 1992 he won a seat in the state legislature as a democrat and announced he was a former CIA officer. Still, he wouldn’t have joined the debate over the current CIA leak case if I hadn’t asked him about it. Gossens is concerned about how his words might impact his son, James, who is in Iraq dodging bullets in a Humvee while fighting in a war his father hates.
But once questioned, Gossens is willing to speak for present and former CIA agents about the outing of Plame. “They are angry,” Gossens told me. “They joined the CIA to make a difference and believed that their lives and careers were protected. It was a despicable act.”