Spies in a free society

Much has been done to reform the US Central Intelligence Agency since the revelations of wrongdoing in the aftermath of Watergate. But, as the just-concluded series on "spy wars" by Monitor correspondent Daniel Southerland bears out, the United States still faces a grave national intelligence problem. The CIA alone cannot be blamed for failures of policy in such areas as Iran; indeed, the whole foreign policy establishment can be faulted. But it is clear that there still needs to be a better public perception of the role of the CIA and other intelligence servcies -- and more national discussion of how to make intelligence an integral, valuable part of US foreign policy.

Too many Americans still think of intelligence work as a romantic world of "moles" and secret back-alley operations. Yet the basic need today is not for quick-fix solutions of a covert nature but for steady, balanced intelligence that provides a president not only with the facts of what is happening or what may happen in the short run but with an understanding of the political, social, religious, and other factors affecting the enormous long-term changes now sweeping the world. It is on such intelligence that he relies in shaping policy and ensuring national security.

The sad fact, however, is that there are too few thoughtful, knowledgeable people in the intelligence services who can analyze and interpret developments abroad. This, in turn, stems from a US educational system today attracting less interest in foreign languages and cultures than a decade ago. Until this cultural gap is remedied -- and the intelligence community is accorded due prestige and importance -- it will be hard to upgrade the quality of intelligence work.

Another problem is the relative isolation in which the CIA seems to operate. The agency ought to be tied more closely to the policymakers, wihout of course letting it become politicized or involved itself in the formulation of policy. Too often what is done at Langley, VA., it unrelated to what is needed. The State Department's small Bureau of Intelligence and Research, by comparison, works portance -- it will be hard to upgrade the quality of intelligence work.

Another problem is the relative isolation in which the CIA seems to operate. The agency ought to be tied more closely to the policymakers, wihout of course letting it become politicized or involved itself in the formulation of policy. Too often what is done at Langley, VA., it unrelated to what is needed. The State Department's small Bureau of Intelligence and Research, by comparison, works closely with the secretary of state and maintains a high rating of intelligence analysis.

As for covert operations, these have steadily declined in importance as the technology of intelligence gathering has been revolutionized. Yet, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of US hostages in Iran, pressures are again building for more resort to cloak-and-dagger operations. Increased "political action," as the CIA prefers to call these, is perhaps justified in such areas as limited support for the supply of arms to Afghan freedom fighters.

But the temptation to return to the CIA's secret practices of the past -- manipulation of elections, assassination plots, overthrow of governments, distortion of the press -- should be strongly resisted. It has never been proved that such activities have benefited the US and indeed they have more often than not damaged the nation's credibility and moral stature. This is not to deny the immense mischief attempted around the world by the Soviet Union and the vast intelligence network of the KBG. But the way to meet his challenge is not to blame everything on the Russians but to address the local conditions on which Soviet manipulation feeds. This is why local conditions need to be understood well -- so that US policy does not fall into a trap, as it did in Iran.

We are not unmindful either that the KGB maintains a vast army of agents in the US, confronting the nation with a severe counterintelligence problem. Counterintelligence ought to be strengthened, and the FBI, already overburdened, needs more people. It goes without saying, however, that the crimes of the past committed in the name of counterintelligence must be guarded against and that a charter would help protect both the public and the FBI.

Nor should efforts fade to provide the CIA with a new charter allowing for effective intelligence gathering and secrecy even while preserving individual freedoms. It is true that the original charter legislation may have been unworkable and modifications are needed. But the proposed restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, seem to go too far. Since passage of the act there has been no notable leak of national security information by the courts handling freedom of information cases. The system, in other words, is working, and the Senate should be careful not to erode the gains made for greater openness and accountability. In this connection it ought to be noted that some leaks of recent years have come from within the security system -- a former CIA clerk, two aerospace employees, and so on -- suggesting that the CIA must do a better job of tightening its own security.

In this connection, too, the American public ought to know that the US Congress is playing a constructive role in the intelligence field. More lawmakers have been brought into the process of information and evaluation -- and, we hasten to add, with none of the "leaks" some people are so concerned about. This dispersal of power can be seen as an unusual and successful experiment contrasting markedly with that of other countries.

In sum, there remains a need to give the CIA and other intelligence agencies more coherent and purposeful direction. The nation has yet to come to grips with what it wants intelligence to do or how to do it. For the next president, the task will be not only to formulate a sound foreign policy -- but to make the important intelligence community a meaningful part of it.

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