Washington — "I don't know why the Soviet's bother running around trying to steal secrets in this country," said one of America's leading intelligence officers recently. "There's so much information available to them from open sources," he said, adding with a touch of bitterness: "I hope they drown in it."
Washington is preoccupied these days with the twin problems of getting good intelligence while keeping the secrets.
For the men and women fighting America's silent war to gather such intelligence, the shooting war between Iraq and Iran dramatizes a continuing problem: understanding rapid change in a world of widely dispersed power and assertive developing nations.
Given the past weaknesses of American intelligence gathering in the Middle East, it is not surprising that new flaws are showing: After a week of fighting between Iran and Iraq, some Washington officials are beginning to complain of inadequate intelligence reporting on the conflict.
The war has erupted against the background of yet another Washington preoccupation: keeping secrets in a society that prides itself on producing information for the widest possible consumption.
To counter leaks of highly classified information, the White House recently imposed a new system called "royal." It restricts the distribution of certain secrets to all but a few top policymakers.
The CIA is pushing for legislation that would make it a criminal offense to publish the names of undercover American intelligence operatives. It also wants to impose restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, which currently allows private citizens access to a wide range of once-classified documents.
The civil libertarians are fighting back, and seem to have succeeded in getting action postponed on legislation dealing with undercover intelligence officers. They argue that proposed legislation would infringe on constitutional rights and fear it might provide cover for CIA abuses. Many journalists and law professors argue that the legislation might violate guarantees of free speech and a free press by punishing reporters for exposing CIA corruption or incompetence.
The CIA argues that allowing opponents of the intelligence agency to disclose the identities of its undercover officers exposes them to threats from terrorists and has a "chilling effect" on their intelligence-gathering operations. It also argues that the FOIA disclosures have caused foreign intelligence agencies to stop sharing some of the information they would normally share with the CIA.
The intelligence agencies, civil libertarians, and parliaments in a number of other countries are viewing the American debate over legislative restrictions on the CIA and other American intelligence agencies with a mixture of apprehension, awe, and in some cases, hope.
The debate amounts to an unprecedented experiment. Never has any major nation argued out in public, to such a degree, the virtues and vices of its intelligence agencies. If the experiment works, and a reasonable balance can be found between preserving freedoms and pursuing effective intelligence gathering, other nations will no doubt learn lessons from it.
As Stephen Dedijer, a professor in the policy research program at the University of Lund in Sweden points out, since their birth in the 16th century, organized intelligence services in Europe have never been mandated by modern constitutions. In Europe, there is still scarcely any legislation dealing with intelligence.
But, contends Professor Dedijer, an examination of recent history also shows that the intelligence services in none of these countries has been exempt from failures and scandals.
Legislative reform has come only in recent years. In the United States and in Italy, independent parliamentary committees with legislated powers to exercise oversight and control have been established. The issue of legislative oversight has been intensely debated in the parliaments of West Germany and Sweden. Oversight legislation is being introduced in Canada. And parliaments in several other countries are watching the US Congress.
In some countries, of course, there is a firm conviction that too many legislative restrictions and too much openness hinder the effective operation of America's CIA. This, at least, is the view in Britain, as reported by Americans with friends in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, known as the SIS or MI. 6 .
"They feel very uneasy about it in Britain," says Ray Cline, a former deputy director of the CIA. "They told me, 'We think you people are on a suicidal course.'"
But a three-month look at the problems of intelligence gathering from the perspectives of Europe, the Middle East, and the United States indicates that many of the difficulties that trouble America's intelligence agencies have nothing to do with legislative restrictions or the Freedom of Information Act.
Perhaps the most important factor in the recurrence of intelligence failures has been a lack of consensus in the United States as to what the US should be accomplishing in the world as well as a lack of clear foreign policy leadership.
As the British spy novelist John Le Carre once said, "No secret service can be more clear headed than its government. Everything rests upon a clearcut statement of requirements by those who formulate the nation's policy."
At the end of what might be called a voyage into the spy world, one returns with the feeling that Le Carre, once a member of the British secret service, has a useful message for Americans. In an interview in the New York Times Book Review last October, the novelist argued that Americans must overcome a kind of "political romanticism that one moment espouses openness at any price, and next revels in the high alchemy of secret panaceas and swift, unconventional, totally illegal solutions."
Putting it another way, Le Carre seems to be saying that the United States needs a little less of James Bond as a model and a little more of his rumpled hero George Smiley, a spy who can often be sensitive, balanced, and resonable.
There are no quick-fix, James Bond solutions or secret panaceas to the problems that trouble the American intelligence agencies.
One of the main problems is an educational one. Americans are not studying foreign languages or foreign cultures as much as they did a decade ago. The CIA is short of linguists, particularly in the difficult languages of Chinese, Russian, and Arabic.
In 1978 Adm. Stansfield Turner, the director of Central Intelligence, complained that the number of applicants for CIA employment with foreign-language proficiency was dwindling. CIA officials say the situation has not improved.
When a Soviet soldier sought asylum in the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, recently, he could find no one who could communicate with him in Russian.
There is a cultural problem as well. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, said recently, Americans tend to be "event-oriented" -- interested in the sensation of the moment, but not much interested in long-range trends. (Ironically, some other officials accuse Dr. Brzezinski himself of this failing at times and often refer to him as impulsive.)
Intelligence officers who specialize in one area of the world are not rewarded as often as those generalists who can move quickly from one "hot" area to another, according to a former CIA analyst.
"Bureaucratically, a specialist is an embarrassment, because you can't move him around easliy," said the former analyst.
"The problem," said a White House official with overseas experience, "is to find analysts who can write from a wealth of understanding for a foreign culture. . . . We've had a failure in the American educational system to produce classical scholars who can do that.
"There is an American habit of mind that is not particularly contemplative," he continued. "It's not how fast you know something that should count. It's what it means, and how you convey that meaning to others.
"The great intelligence failure in Iran was the inability to find out what Islam meant. . . ."
"You've got a global trend toward fundamentalist nostalgia," he said. "But it is very, very hard for representatives of a progressive civilization to get in tune with all that."
A leading US official lists relations with the Soviet Union and with the developing countries as the key areas of concern in the coming decade. Yet the US has yet to work out what it wants to do in the way of a long-range foreign aid program. If it did more, it might have fewer crises to cope with over the long run in the developing world. As the London Economist newspaper has pointed out, Americans last year spent more on potted plants and flowers (some $5 billion) than they did on aid to developing countries.
A typical American solution to problems such as now exist in the American intelligence community would be to reorganize. But it is hard to imagine that reorganization will get at the root of the problems.
A criticism from a former high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer who has observed the American system: "You've got some good people working on the Middle East who do know the countries and the regimes. . . . But even if they do proper analysis, there seems to be a breakdown, a failure of communication between them and the people who should be making the decisions."
Another part of the American debate over secrecy and security is an incredible blossoming of literature on the CIA. In the first six months of 1980 , more than 70 books and manuscripts were submitted to the CIA for security review, mostly by former agency employees.
One of those books, written by former CIA official Ralph McGehee, will charge that the intelligence agency is poorly manned and operated and has made numerous intelligence failures.
The British are constantly accusing the CIA of being overmanned. But among many knowledgeable Washington bureaucrats, one of the highest ratings for intelligence work goes to the smallest component in the so-called intelligence community. This is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).
The INR, with a staff of about 300 persons, would almost get lost in one of the CIA's long corridors. It has no overseas collectors of intelligence. But it has one major advantage over the CIA. Being located inside the State Department, it is closer to the policymakers than the CIA and is relied upon by the secretary of state.
"We know what the secretary wants, and we can get to him," one INR man said.
"Ninety percent of the people in this building deal with problems relevant to the next 24 hours," the official said. "We're interested in the next 20 years."
The INR, now headed by Ronald I. Spiers, is credited with having been the only government intelligence agency to have consistently warned of war well before the 1973 Egyptian attack on Israel. During the Iranian crisis of 1978-79 , INR is said to have challenged relatively optimistic assessments of prospects for the Shah of Iran coming from other intelligence agencies, including the CIA.
The INR has a number of analysts who study the same country or region year after year.
Despite fears that the American system is too loose -- with its freedom of information and congressional oversight of intelligence agencies -- the system is in some respects working remarkably well. There have been no notable leaks of classified information from the intelligence committees of FOIA cases.
There has been only one case in which a district judge ordered the CIA to make a disclosure of something the agency argued was classified.
In Washington, one of the most security-conscious and careful bodies is the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Members watch every word they say with a care that is atypical of politicians. More national security leaks appear to come from the executive branch than from Capitol Hill.
Mark Lynch, a lawyer for the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fears that while the "oversight" system may be working well so far, the two congressional committees may be "coopted" by the intelligence agencies.
"My fear is that they may brainwash a large part of the Congress," he said.
"We may develop a little cadre of senators who want to understand the CIA's most complicated arguments. . . . They may start believing in the whole mystique."
What has definitely not been resolved is the question of how to protect intelligence officers working in foreign nations under cover. The Washington-based Covert Action Bulletin has been publishing the names of such officers, thus giving conservatives in the Senate and House a case on which to build arguments for lifting some of the restrictions on the intelligence agencies.
Any relatively open society trying to protect its secrets from another society with a long tradcition of secrecy, conspiracy, and deception has a problem. But there might be some comfort in the fact that even if the Soviets and their friends are able to get to know one segment of a democratic society, it cannot give them the key to the whole. Power is too widely dispersed for that..
Because of this relative openness, however, it seems almost inevitable that the US, and by extension its Western partners, should be losing the edge in the war to keep the secrets. But sometimes that very openness is the best weapon of self-defense -- as long as openness does not amount to naivete. One can think of a number of cases of defectors from the Soviet Union and East-bloc countries who have come over to the West in part because of its freedoms. In some cases, of course, they have also sought a higher standard of living.
It is precisely by not playing -- in peacetime, at least -- the deception game that some communist nations play, that the West has a chance to come out on top.
As the British diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson says, "it is advisable . . . for the Westener to stick always to the truth, in the expenditure of which he possesses ample reserves. His actions will in any case be misrepresented; if they be based on demonstrable truth, then the misrepresentation will be apparent event to the least educated."
There is a theory, not yet widely accepted, that the revolution in technology which the world has seen in recent decades has made cloak-and-dagger intelligence obsolute. Professor Dedijer of the University of Lund is a proponent of this theory.
Spying as a labor-intensive intelligence activity is gradually being replaced by technological and scientific methods accessible to many countries, wrote Professor Dedijer in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Leaning toward Professor Dedijer's theory is, of all people, a former CIA director, William E. Colby.
In an interview Mr. Colby said that "intelligence is becoming a private-sector problem. And the acquisition of intelligence is becoming a small , small part of the total problem. There was no secret about the causes of the Shah's downfll, but we didn't do a particularly good job of interpreting the information which was available."
Mr. Colby argues that many different competing centers of anlaysis -- many of them in the private sector -- will provide the nation with better judgments in foreign affairs.
President Carter came to office sounding skeptical about secret CIA operations aimed at influencing events abroad and indeed seems to have kept such operations to a minimum during his first 2 1/2 years in office.
But frustration over the taking of American hostages in Iran as well as over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has generated pressures in this country to return to some of the cloak-and-dagger operations of the past. According to a variety of official and nonofficial sources, the United States is now running a number of such operations, most of them apparently in the news media and propaganda field.
Such activities could include financial or material support for friendly foreign newsmen and publications or attempts to insert articles in foreign publications.
It is also thought that the United States may be playing a coordinating role by shipping Soviet small arms stockpiled in Egypt to the Afghan freedom fighters. Sophisticated anti- tank and anti-aircraft weapons of the type the Afghan guerrillas say they most need have yet to show up in any significant numbers on the battlefield, however.
In June of this year, the CBS television network broadcast a special report on "The Return of the CIA" in which it spoke of a "propaganda war" being run by the intelligence agency against Cubans in Africa and "secret political campaigns" being waged by the CIA in Central America. Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin told CBS that he thought the President and some of his advisers wanted the CIA to go "back into the covert action business, in that area where they used to conduct operations, political, military, or economic, to try to achieve US foreign policy aims, destabilize. . . ."
A senior official who is supposed to be informed of all such operations recently told this reporter, however, that while there had been a limited revival of secret political actions, they amounted to "peanuts" compared to any of the well- publicized actions of the past -- the CIA's campaign against Chile's Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens, for example.
US Director of Central Intelligence, Admiral Turner, has never shown any great liking for "covert action." He once told Time magazine, "A couple of times it [a plan for covert action] has been accepted but on the whole I have not found it a very attractive option."
But supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan have indicated that Governor Reagan would like to do more in the way of covert action than the Carter administration has done. Mr. Reagan told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last May that, as president, he would favor providing weapons to the guerrilla faction in Angola known as UNITA. UNITA has been fighting the Marxist government of that southern African country.
The conventional wisdom in the US Congress at the moment seems to be that any attempt on the part of a President Reagan to revive anything like the large-scale secret operations of the past would be defeated by opposition from the Democrats.
And despite the CBS report on secret political campaigns being run by the CIA in Central America, at least one US ambassador in the region, Robert White in El Salvador, is reported to have said "no" to proposals that the CIA mount a propaganda campaign in the country.