A few loose ends in the spy game

You might be surprised to learn that Washington state produces an unusual number of international spies, at least according to their driver’s licenses. That’s right, we’re national leaders in something besides marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage and annual rainfall.

The state Department of Licensing (DOL) has issued phony driver’s licenses to the Central Intelligence Agency for decades – 288 licenses since 2007 – through a little-known, special office called the License Integrity Unit (LIU).

But hold off on the conspiracy theories.

The office has been supplying the CIA and police officers assigned to undercover operations with necessary fake identities, which are an essential tool in the world of law enforcement.

Unfortunately, it has been doing so without the knowledge or approval of legislators or the governor. It was exposed recently in reporting by the Kitsap Sun and National Public Radio station KPLU.

While the License Integrity Unit provides a valuable service, the Legislature wisely addressed several glaring issues.

State lawmakers formally approved of the program and provided some measure of legislative oversight. For example, the new legislation requires that the licenses have an expiration date and are returned within a month of the end of any undercover operation. No one outside of the LIU knows how many thousands of previously issued unlimited licenses will remain in circulation.

The Legislature also enacted provisions to prevent public disclosure of the identities of undercover officers. We normally argue for complete government transparency, but disclosure in this case could compromise officer safety.

But the bill sent to Gov. Jay Inslee during the regular session does little to clarify whether the CIA qualifies for the program under the definition of law enforcement. It says, “Units of local government and agencies of the federal government for law enforcement purposes only.”

There’s an argument to be made that the CIA fails to meet the criteria of a law enforcement agency — its mission is carry out illegal espionage operations in foreign countries. The bill’s language may terminate the CIA service, but it is imprecise enough to suggest interpretation.

And since the License Integrity Unit refuses to specify its agreement with the federal government, only a few select state government employees in the DOL may ever know if CIA operatives carry Washington state licenses in the future.

OK, now resume your conspiracy theories.