"She did not leak any classified information, and she did not have access to the information apparently attributed to her by some government officials," Washington lawyer Ty Cobb, who is representing veteran CIA analyst Mary McCarthy, said.
A law enforcement source, speaking last week on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, linked her to the Post's story about the CIA's covert sites in Eastern Europe and elsewhere used to hold terror suspects. The story caused an international clamor last fall.
The CIA said an employee was fired on Thursday for knowingly disclosing classified information, but gave no details and did not identify the employee. Cobb said McCarthy hopes to find a way to clear up the allegations and move on.
"Her hope is to be able to pursue her planned retirement from two decades of distinguished public service to do community service law," Cobb said.
Earlier Monday, a McCarthy friend and former professional associate also asserted she was not the Post's source. "She was not the source for that story," said Rand Beers, who has spoken with her.
Beers headed intelligence programs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration at a time McCarthy also worked in the White House. He said McCarthy authorized him to make the brief statement, but declined to discuss the matter further.
Senior Bush administration officials have vowed to make clamping down on leaks of classified information a top priority — to the dismay of whistleblower advocates who find merit when the disclosures unveil wrongdoing.
Stephen Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, said he believes McCarthy could have a strong case to contest her firing.
"If she was blowing the whistle on something that's illegal, it's our position you cannot classify the illegal conduct of government. You can't say that's a secret," Kohn said.
In a message distributed to the agency work force Thursday afternoon, CIA Director Porter Goss expressed his deep concern over the "critical damage being suffered" from media leaks and informed his staff of the firing of an unidentified official.
"A CIA officer has acknowledged having unauthorized discussions with the media, in which the officer knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence, including operational information. I terminated that officer's employment with the CIA," Goss said.
In January, Goss directed the CIA's security office to conduct polygraph examinations on officers involved in certain sensitive intelligence programs. He said criminal reports were also filed with the Justice Department on "the most egregious media leaks that contained classified intelligence and national security information."
The Post's Dana Priest won the Pulitzer Prize for a package of stories that included a report about a covert prison system created by the CIA. Citing multiple sources, the story said there were facilities in eight countries, including a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe. Senior government officials have said the report did significant damage to national security.
McCarthy, 61, was days away from retiring from the government. Had she entered private life, the CIA's options against her would have been more limited. For instance, the agency could put a letter of reprimand in her file, which could restrict her ability to do contract work, or take the more extreme step of asking the Justice Department to prosecute.
The CIA had not formally asked the Justice Department to look into criminal charges against McCarthy, a law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.
Speaking in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the bureau is conducting investigations similar to the one that resulted in McCarthy's firing. "Leaking of classified materials is a concern for those agencies that have classified materials," he said.
Government officials have raised concerns that the case against McCarthy could be hampered by the prominence of polygraph examinations, which typically cannot be used in criminal proceedings.
Another question that has arisen is whether McCarthy essentially was forced to make incriminating statements to CIA investigators, and whether these also might not be admissible if she were prosecuted, the law enforcement official said.
The government still could seek to charge McCarthy with a crime, but might well have to assemble evidence independent of the polygraph and subsequent interview that led to her firing, the official added.
One well-known defense attorney, Plato Cacheris, said he doubts whether those factors would hinder a prosecution. "She could raise those issues, but whether they'd prevail is another question," Cacheris said.
After starting her government career at the CIA, McCarthy served as an intelligence adviser to the White House's National Security Council from 1996 to 2001. She left shortly after President Bush took office. She and her husband have made political contributions to Democratic candidates, including Sen. John Kerry during the last presidential campaign.
McCarthy then became a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank, and later returned to the CIA.
In her final position there, she was assigned to its Office of Inspector General, looking into allegations the CIA was involved in torture at Iraqi prisons.