BOSTON — ALTHOUGH tensions with the Soviet Union are easing dramatically, the United States cannot afford to cut back its overseas intelligence efforts, government and private analysts say. As the potential threat to US security shifts from Europe to other regions, the US will have to learn and understand more about those areas, these analysts say. In addition, nuclear and conventional arms control treaties will require more US inspectors in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries to monitor compliance with the accords.
``In a period of uncertainty, we need more intelligence, not less. The number of variables is increasing,'' says a government analyst who asked not to be named. ``The more you cut defense, the more you need to spend on intelligence.''
This view is not shared by everyone. ``When defense spending goes up, they say we need to spend more on intelligence because defense spending is up, says Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D) of California. ``When it goes down, they say we need to spend more on intelligence because defense spending is down.'' Congressman Beilenson, chairman of the House intelligence committee, says he thinks it likely that spending for intelligence will decline ``a modest amount'' as spending in general is cut back.
But the intelligence community sees it differently.
``As the hard edges of the world recede, the threats we face have become more diffuse, and more difficult to define,'' William Webster, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told the National Press Club recently. ``Intelligence is critical as policymakers determine what course to follow in a world which may become more dangerous because it has become less predictable.''
The threats to national security most often mentioned by experts these days include terrorism, drug trafficking, instability in the third world, the proliferation of missiles and chemical and biological weapons, and economic and technological competition.
``Whenever you have a global change and the development of a multipolar world, there is a greater need to look at regional conflicts, drugs, and terrorism,'' says Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma, who sits on both the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. ``We need to look at places like Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.'' He also advocates more intelligence on trade and economic issues, as well as military technology developments in other countries.
The recent coup attempt in the Philippines ``is a good example of why you have to watch everywhere all the time,'' the government analyst says. ``In the past we always had the feeling the Soviets wouldn't do anything irrational. But what about guys like [Libyan leader Col. Muammar] Qaddafi? It is less certain that he will be a sensible actor on the world scene.''
This will mean a change in the way the intelligence community has operated during most of the postwar era.
``Our collection and analytical efforts have been so focused on bloc politics that it will take a long time to reorient our efforts,'' says Bill Green, a professor in Boston University's department of international relations.
But even if d'etente with the Soviet Union continues indefinitely, the US still needs to know what is going on there and why. ``We have to look at the various ethnic groups, dissident groups, and the struggle for power,'' the government analyst says.
The expected increase in arms control agreements with the Soviets will also place new demands on US intelligence efforts. ``The INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty requires 1,000 US inspectors, all with Russian-language ability,'' Mr. Green says. ``A START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement will require three times as many. And heaven knows how many monitors a conventional forces treaty would require.''
At the same time, the relaxation of tension between the superpowers could lead to savings in some areas of intelligence. ``We might be able to cut back on monitoring a possible Soviet first strike, which is not too likely anymore,'' says the government analyst.
And ``if Soviet `new thinking' continues, monitoring requirements might actually be reduced'' in the future, Congressman McCurdy says.
Intelligence specialists assert that, unlike defense spending, intelligence collection and analysis is relatively cheap - compared with the cost of going to war because of intelligence failures.
``Intelligence is the ounce of prevention,'' Green says. ``Military reaction is the pound of cure.''