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Apparent CIA front didn't offer much cover

At first glance, 101 Arch St. seems like the perfect setting for a spy story: an elegant office building downtown with an upscale restaurant, lots of foot traffic, and a subway entrance to stage a getaway.

"It's a great place to blend in," said Rob Griffin, regional president of Cushman & Wakefield Inc., the real estate firm.

The CIA may have thought so too. Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative once listed as her employer Brewster Jennings & Associates. A company by that name has a listed address but no visible presence at the 21-story office tower.

Plame's exposure as an intelligence operative has become a major controversy in Washington. Former intelligence officials confirmed Plame's cover was an invention and that she used other false identities and affiliations when working overseas. "All it was was a telephone and a post office box," said one former intelligence official who asked not to be identified. "When she was abroad she had a more viable cover."

That's a good thing, considering how little work seems to have gone in to establishing the company's presence in Boston, intelligence observers said. While the renovated building houses legal and investment firms, current and former building managers said they've never heard of Brewster Jennings. Nor did the firm file the state and local records expected of most businesses.

Both factors would have aroused the suspicions of anyone who tried to check up on Brewster Jennings, said David Armstrong, an Andover researcher for the Public Education Center, a liberal Washington think tank.

At the least, a dummy company ought to create the appearance of activity, with an office and a valid mailing address, he said. "A cover that falls apart on first inspection isn't very good. What you want is a cover that actually holds up . . . and this one certainly doesn't."

Some in the real estate industry believe something was amiss, if not illegal. "It's almost like out of a spy novel -- the tenant that wasn't there," said Griffin, who once oversaw management of the tower. "And they picked a nice address."

The collapse of Plame's cover could compromise any other operatives who claimed to work for Brewster Jennings. Although former officials wouldn't confirm that Plame's cover company used the Arch Street address, they offered no other explanation of the phantom tenant.

Plame's identity as a CIA operative was disclosed July 14 by the conservative newspaper columnist Robert Novak, who implied that the information came from "two senior administration officials." Just eight days before, her husband, Joseph C. Wilson, a former US ambassador, had written in The New York Times that the Bush administration relied on discredited intelligence in alleging sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq.

Yesterday, Plame didn't return a message left with Wilson requesting an interview, but she had listed her employer as "Brewster-Jennings & Associates" in a filing when she donated $1,000 to Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She listed her occupation as "analyst."

A spokeswoman for Dun & Bradstreet Inc., a New Jersey operator of commercial databases, said Brewster Jennings was first entered into its records on May 22, 1994, but wouldn't discuss the source of the filing. Its records list the company at 101 Arch St. as a "legal services office," which could mean a law firm, with annual sales of $60,000, one employee, and a chief executive identified as "Victor Brewster, Partner."

That person isn't listed elsewhere. But the address is certainly known, a tower finished in 1988 at the corner of Summer and Arch streets with 405,511 square feet of office space, then housing the upscale Dakota's restaurant, since succeeded by Vinalia. Many commuters pass through the building as they exit the Downtown Crossing subway station. 101 Arch was sold last year to CB Richard Ellis Investors of Los Angeles for an estimated $90 million.

Dun & Bradstreet records on Brewster Jennings show that on June 1, 2000, "sources contacted verified information" the day before, but a D&B spokeswoman wouldn't discuss what that means.

The D&B records give a phone number for the company, but it wasn't in service yesterday. Verizon wouldn't comment. A spokesman for the US Postal Service wouldn't say whether a post office box was associated with the company.

Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former counterterrorism chief, said that when operating undercover outside the United States, Plame would have had a real job with a more legitimate company. The Boston company "is not an indicator of what she did overseas," he said.

Brewster Jennings was the name of the president of the former Socony-Vacuum oil company, a predecessor of Exxon Mobil Corp. But the Jennings family denies any connection, said a grandson, Brewster Jennings, a real estate investor in Durango, Colo. He said that since the firm was named as a CIA front he's heard from many friends and family members who "find tremendous humor in all this."

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

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