With the Casey affair, the spotlight is once more on the Select Committees on Intelligence of the two houses of Congress. The country should be grateful for their existence. Congress was correct last year to reduce the number of committees to which the intelligence agencies reported. The select committees, however, have a good record for responsible, secure surveillance of intelligence operations.
Their greatest value is in taking a hard look at covert action proposals. There is generally a large measure of agreement among members of the committees, policy makers, and intelligence officials on clandestine collection activities. That is less the case with operations that involve political action in another country.
Many Americans are fascinated with the idea of covert action. Among some in the Congress, in the public, in policy making positions and in the intelligence community there is an almost magical belief in America's ability to change, through covert means, circumstances not to its liking in other countries. "Unleash the CIA" has been a common cry in several political campaigns.
This temptation to covert political action arises from several impulses. Many are broadly frustrated that the Soviet Union appears to get away successfully with manipulating other societies. Without pausing to ask whether this is really true, such persons ask why the United States cannot do the same. Others are unable to accept that with our power and our influence we cannot change governments and policies contrary to our interests.
Intelligence officers and policymakers, already tempted, are sometimes swayed by the word of a persuasive foreign exile or dissident politician that, with some money and outside hlep, changes can be wrought. In fairness to the professional intelligence officers, some of the less feasible and more risky ideas have in the past arisen in areas of the executive outside the CIA.
Disciplined professional experts who, if they are aware of such plans, express their reservations in closed meetings are not in a position to challenge effectively the determination of higher-level officials to proceed.
The US record of successes in covert political action is not impressive. One can name Iran and Guatemala where apparently successful actions took place many years ago. From the perspective of history can even those actions be considered successes?
It is probably true that the size and power of the US would have bred a paranoia in many parts of the world about US involvement in the internal affairs of other nations, even if the CIA did not exist. It is also true that the reputation for responsibility of the CIA has been badly distorted by revelations during the '60s of proposals found in files, many of which were never seriously considered. To many in the US and abroad, they were treated as fact. These revelations and the known propensity of American leaders to consider covert political action has added to the myth of the CIA around the world that has been a serious handicap to the general acceptance of the United States and its motives.
We are a nation which, with rare exceptions, has difficulty understanding other societies. To attempt to manipulate other societies requires the most sophisticated awareness of that society, its people, and the region around it. Few outsiders, including the KGB, possess that kind of insight. The US, in particular, with its frequent changes in intelligence leadership, its problem of protecting agents, and its lack of a truly long-term approach, should be wary of such actions. Proposals hastily drawn under the pressures of short-term challenges to US policies are not likely to be successful.
This is where the select committees in the Senate and the House can, and do, play a role. From the committee members' own backgrounds as politicians, they can ask questions that many in the executive may have been unable or unwilling to ask.
There may be times when the US is justified in attempting, through covert means, to influence the situation in another country. These times should be rare. When such actions are considered, their success will be enhanced if the enthusiasm of the originator is matched by skeptical questio ning by responsible members of the Congress.