Washington — Can American intelligence agencies operate effectively if their operations are constantly discussed in the press? Recent disclosures of sensitive government information have brought new life to the longstanding debate over three issues:
The public's right to be generally aware of the operations of United States intelligence organizations.
The extent to which public knowledge of US intelligence methods, successes, and failures neutralizes their effectiveness.
The possibility that intelligence agencies might revert to previous abuses if congressional oversight is constrained.
``There appear to have been so many leaks in the newspapers that it is surprising to me that foreigners still would be willing to work secretly for the United States,'' says Roy Godson, an intelligence specialist and professor at Georgetown University. ``The more leaking, I would have thought, the more difficult to recruit and run agents.''
US intelligence has been beset recently by a series of leaks and unauthorized disclosures in American newspapers. They have occurred most recently in the case of Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko, the case of former Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward L. Howard, and the apparent release of information about a purported secret US proposal to encourage the overthrow of Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi
The issue came to a head last week when Central Intelligence Agency director William Casey sharply criticized Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota for what Mr. Casey characterized as ``off the cuff'' comments the senator made during a press luncheon.
``Public discussion of sensitive information and views revealed in a closed session of an oversight committee is always damaging and inadvisable,'' Casey said in a letter to Senator Durenberger.
He added, ``If the oversight process is to work at all, it cannot do so from the front pages of American newspapers.''
Durenberger, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, fired off a return shot of his own in a letter printed verbatim in the Washinton Post. ``Public discussion of intelligence does not necessarily mean disclosure of sensitive sources and methods,'' Durenberger said.
He added, ``In Casey's view, the cost of public discussion is simply too high, and therefore the public has no right to know how effectively the CIA does its job. . . .''
This heated public exchange is the most recent flare-up in the often fiery relations between Casey and members of the intelligence oversight committees of Congress. By law, the House and Senate intelligence committees monitor the performance of US intelligence. The Casey-Durenberger exchange is unusual because it was apparently triggered by a misunderstanding arising from a news account of a Durenberger press luncheon.
The disagreement comes at a time of widespread frustration and second-guessing in the intelligence community about the handling of Soviet KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenko. It is also a time when officials in Washington are assigning blame and pointing accusatorial fingers at those suspected of security leaks.
While administration officials suspect Congress is fertile ground for journalists seeking publishable secrets, members of Congress are pointing down Pennsylvania Avenue, toward suspected leakers at the White House.
``For them, information is a two-way street,'' said Durenberger, during his now infamous lunch with reporters. He added, ``Most of you know that [administration officials] are capable of selectively leaking. . . . With regard to Central America, in particular, they have leaked classified information about arms flow.''
Of the Yurchenko leaks, Durenberger said, ``I strongly suspect that some information was provided to the public just to show that when everyone else was losing their [agents through defections] we were in pretty good shape.''
Some intelligence officials, including Casey, are reported to be upset that details about Yurchenko found their way into US newspapers. Yurchenko himself was reported to have been concerned about the press coverage his defection received in the US.
In addition, administration and congressional officials are currently investigating the apparent leak of purported secret US plans to encourage the overthrow of Libya's Qaddafi. The original story was published Nov. 3 in the Washington Post. American government officials are forbidden by law to carry out or plot assassinations.
Durenberger says that regardless of the accuracy of the story, it has created problems for the Senate Intelligence Committee by angering the administration.
Some intelligence experts maintain that leaks and imprudent public disclosures will always hamper the intelligence process because of the unavoidable conflicts inherent in running a secret intelligence operation in an open society.
But these experts also stress that a total blackout on public information about US intelligence operations would be counterproductive. They say such a blackout could erode public confidence in America's intelligence services and contribute to a revival of the anti-intelligence crusades of the 1970s.
``I think it is very important for the informed American public to come to terms with the intelligence capability that the government has chosen to maintain,'' says John M. Oseth, author of the recently released book ``Regulating US Intelligence Operations.''
Durenberger observes that it is a paradox of intelligence work that successes are rarely heralded in public. ``If the public knew how good their intelligence was, they would forgive some of the mistakes.'' He adds, ``I am trying to open that process up a little bit more, so that it isn't just their mistakes that become a problem.''