Tinker, tailor, soldier, Congress

In real-life Washington, payoffs by the KGB are exposed as a former CIA agent pleads guilty to selling secrets to the Russians. On make-believe television, the climax approaches in the "tinker, Tailor, Soldier, spy" sries from a former British intelligence officer's novel about the KGB infiltrating Britain's espionage network.

Thus the need to counter the machinations of Soviet spies is being brought home to Americans in fact and fictioin just as their lawmakers have taken a new initiative toward ensuring the effectiveness and accountability of United States spies. Now, among other things, the president is required to report in "a timely fashion" to the House and Senate intelligence committees any "significant intelligence failure" and any "corrective action" taken or planned.

As far as the general public is concerned, such amendments to a routine funding measure finally went into law almost as undetected as the double agent being traced by the Alec Guinness character on the tube. Be honest now, did you know the President signed the legislation earlier this month? After all the attention once given to developing a charter for the US intelligence agencies, the White House chose not to make much of what one senator called a "historic step."

One reason for the lack of hoopla may be that what was passed fell far short of the thoroughgoing charter which would have specified many of the actions permitted and not permitted to the intelligence agencies.

Yet something has been done: repeal of the so-called Hughes-Ryan amendment of 1974, for example, under which eight congressional committees claimed access to specified intelligence and material and the president was said to be able to keep covert spy operations secret from Congress until after they were over. Now the number of committees entitle to notification of covert actions has been reduced to two, the intelligence committees of both houses. And chairman Boland of the House intelligence committee sees the new law as establishing "a clear policy" that both committees be told in advance about big undercover operations. However, the legislative language, in effect, provides for the president to keep Congress in the dark by requiring that, if he does not give prior notification, he must present a timely report of the action and explain why he failed to do so. He must also report any illegal intelligence activity.

Whatever the committees are told, they have no authority to disapprove intelligence operations. But, if the provisions for disclosure are faithfully adhered to, and their security is maintained, it appears that progress will have been made toward avoiding the kind of misguided adventures that have tarnished the image of US intelligence.

In a kind of footnote, it is reported that the former CIA agent who spied for the Russians sought to continue that spying by getting a job with the Senate intelligence committee -- but it refused his application. Whew!

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