Changes at US spy agency uncover new questions

The Reagan administration has moved quickly to blunt the concerns and criticisms caused by the recent shift in top personnel at the Central Intelligence Agency.

But in naming a successor for Adm. Bobby Inman as CIA deputy director, the administration cannot avoid what will be an inevitable reexamination by Congress of its most significant (and in some cases controversial) intelligence policies.

Initial response to the naming of John McMahon as deputy director is positive. Admiral Inman's resignation had brought a nearly unanimous negative reaction from congressional intelligence experts of both political parties.

Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington calls Mr. McMahon ''a professional's professional. . . I've found him responsive to our questions. He's been candid and forthright.''

Within the intelligence community, the new appointment is likely to be welcomed as a morale booster as the CIA attempts to rebuild an image that had been tarnished during the 1970s. McMahon is a veteran of more than 30 years with the CIA and currently serves as the agency's executive director. He has experience in all major intelligence fields.

But experience and his colleagues' regard are not the only things that will be probed as he faces the required Senate confirmation process.

Inman was liked and - more importantly - trusted by lawmakers charged with intelligence oversight responsibilities. Members of Congress found him not only unusually forthcoming, but a calming influence on important matters regarding civil liberties. It is these areas that will be of most interest on Capitol Hill , particularly since the head of the CIA (William Casey) is a political appointee who does not enjoy the confidence and affection inspired by Inman.

''It helped us to have Casey in that position,'' says a source active in promoting the Freedom of Information Act and protecting civil liberties. And ''it helped us to have Inman on the inside,'' he added, referring to a recent executive order on expanded intelligence activities.

Under this presidential order signed by Ronald Reagan last December, the CIA now has the power to collect information in the United States and conduct certain domestic covert operations in support of foreign intelligence operations.

Congressional sources say Inman resisted this move (at least to the extent advocated by the White House) and worked to limit its practical effect. The extent to which this new CIA authority is being utilized and whether even greater powers will be sought no doubt will be asked of McMahon, sources on Capitol Hill say.

Also likely to be examined is a proposal within the Reagan administration to reorganize US counterintelligence activities under a new agency drawing powers from the FBI as well as CIA. Inman reportedly opposed this move.

Since the revelations concerning the CIA emerged during the Watergate period, Congress has assumed a much-increased watchdog role over intelligence matters. This underlay the high regard for Inman and continuing congressional problems for his immediate boss, CIA director Casey. Many senators did not hide the fact that their first choice for CIA chief was Inman.

''Our relations with Casey are getting better all the time,'' says a congressional source. ''Things are progressing, but we have to make sure that the reforms of '74 and '75 continue. The public demands it.''

McMahon joined the CIA shortly after his graduation from Holy Cross College in 1951. He rose through the ranks to become deputy director for operations in 1978.

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