CIA oversight

With Thursday's meeting between the two sides, the curtain now has risen on Act II of a spark-filled Washington drama: The CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

On the eve of the Thursday hearing, committee members vowed to do what they had not done in Act I: be vigilant about overseeing the Central Intelligence Agency's activities. This is the committee's responsibility, and it ought to be exercised rigorously.

To judge from director William Casey's remarks to individual senators Wednesday, the CIA indicates that it will be more forthcoming in keeping the committee abreast of CIA actions, both in process and in prospect. That is what the CIA is required by law to do: Both the spirit and letter of the law should be followed.

Of necessity some activities of the CIA, and of other government agencies that gather intelligence, must be kept confidential from the American public - and from most other government officials. Yet Congress needs to know whether these secret activities are wise and therefore should be funded. More important, as the representative of the citizenry it needs to be certain that no arm of the government is abusing its secret powers.

Information about the CIA's clandestine actions is supposed to be disclosed to the Senate committee and to the counterpart in the House of Representatives. It is important that the two congressional intelligence committees be fully informed so that Congress is able to trust the CIA - and so that the American people can have confidence in their government.

What now brings the issue to center stage is the revelation in recent weeks of the CIA's role in mining Nicaraguan harbors and in other activities conducted against the Sandinista government. The House Intelligence Committee, through careful probing, had unearthed a good deal from the CIA early this year about those actions. But the Senate committee had learned little or nothing, and cries of senatorial outrage reverberated when news accounts brought the CIA's part to light.

The first act ended with a dramatic rush. Senate committee chairman Barry Goldwater angrily insisted the CIA had not told the committee; the agency said it had. Two days ago Sen. Patrick Moynihan resigned as committee vice-chairman, and CIA director Casey visited individual senators, making it clear that his agency should have done a better job briefing them.

Now it is time to start afresh. Many of the early words are promising, and the Senate committee has met with the CIA in a new and more searching atmosphere.

Yet it is important to realize that vigilance is a perpetual requirement under the United States system of governmental checks and balances. It was only eight years ago that a previous Senate committee, led by the late Sen. Frank Church, conducted a massive study of the CIA, which exposed many activities widely viewed as improper. ''A rogue elephant,'' Senator Church then said of the CIA - meaning an agency out of control.

The Church hearings showed a shocked Congress that it had not known what the CIA was doing. There even were indications that some of the agency's covert operations might have been carried out without the knowledge of the heads of the CIA. There was general agreement in Congress, upon conclusion of the hearings, that from that moment onward Congress itself would be an attentive watchdog over the CIA and its activities.

But the watchdog became inattentive.

Now the same vow once again is being heard. This time it needs to be carried out - and with the CIA's cooperation.

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