'Return of the CIA' -- a documentary without gimmicks

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Unless there is a SALT-like worldwide moratorium on covert actions, the chances are the Central Intelligence Agency, in one form or another, will remain a vital part of the American security scene. "CBS Reports: The Return of the CIA" (Saturday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) makes that very clear in a documentary which is a model of straightforward thesis reportage.

"The Return of the CIA" picks up where "The CIA'a Secret Army" left off in 1977. It is a worthy successor and a prime example of the healthy, constructive , informative yet entertaining job which nongimmicky documentarymaking can accomplish on television.

It was written and produced by Judy Chrichton (who was also responsible for "CIA'S Secret Army'" a couple of years ago) under the expert aegis of executive producer Howard Stringer. Narrated by Ed Bradley, "The Return of the CIA" documents in talks with former and current CIA members, as well as with members of congress, the changing attitude toward the CIA, culminating in recent demands from all political spectrums that the organization be "unshackled and unleashed."

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What just about everybody seems to agree upon, including some "reformed" CIA people, is that there is a great need for intelligence gathering. Whether or not, once "unleashed," the CIA is capable of controlling its own eager underlings, is another question. And whether covert operations are necessary at all is a question which seems to have been resolved several years ago in the negative and been recently revived in the positive.

According to producer Judy Crichton, it took the Iran hostage situation to effectuate the change in attitude. But the recent ineffective rescue mission reawakened congressional doubts about allowing such activities to proceed on the word of one man: the President.

Producer-writer Crichton told the Monitor that her documentary changed a great deal -- her original thesis was to be the impact of collecting intelligence on world affairs. "But then the Iranian hostages were taken and there was a great demand from around the country to 'unshackle' the CIA. Even congressmen who had previously opposed covert activities of any kind began to talk about 'unshackling.' Within the CIA, the reaction was carefully noted.

Did Judy Chrichton, who has spent many months investigating the CIA, come through it all with more or less admiration for the CIA?

"It's not a matter of admiration. The first question which must be answered sooner or later is: Have they, over the decades, been really good for US policy aims? Nobody really knows the answer to that. Sometimes I think it might be better to conduct all our foreign policy openly and stand by the consequences."

But wouldn't that be possible only if everybody else did the same thing? And can we really expect the Russian KGB to drop covert activities?

Miss Crichton laughs and the answer is obvious in the reaction.

She continues: "However, I did become converted to the recognition that there must be some sort of intelligence gathering operation. At the same time I also became convinced that control over CIA covert operations is far too dangerous a power to remain in the hands of one person."

What Miss Crichton seems to worry about most is the fact that "we tend to think that only we know what is best for the country and society. But can any outside power ever intrude on another government, even from the position of protecting its own security interests and still support the culture and values of the other country? Because both interests must be served if it is to be judged a successful operation. What is the definition of our national interests and who should decide that?"

But how can we ever judge whether or not there have been CIA covert actions which can be judged successful? Isn't it true that if they are successful, revealing them would destroy their success?

Miss Crichton laughs again and, perhaps, the answer once again is in that response.

"One thing we should never forget," Miss Crichton says firmly, "and that is that the CIA is just a symbol, a metaphor for something much larger. In the first few days after the unsuccessful rescue mission in Iran, Congress held firm and supported the President, although there was much private concern about allowing the President to move unilaterally on such an important matter. Gradually, the outrage grew when the extent of the possibility for war inherent in the action became apparent . . . outrage at being left out of the decisionmaking process.

"It culminated in the Prior Notification Act which passed in the Senate in early June by a vote of 89 to 1 and is now in the House. The vote was a direct reflection of the fact that Congress feels it cannot accept one man's judgment any longer.

"I admire our intelligence-gathering capacity and now recognize the need for it. But, having traveled a great deal in third-world countries, it worries me when I feel the hatred and suspicion directed at us. I hate to feel that antagonism. And I suspect American intelligence gathering can do its job better than it has done in the past.

"But I -- and a lot of other people -- would feel more secure if more than one man would have to deem it necessary before a covert operation can go ahead."

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