WASHINGTON — SECRET information produced by the CIA is ``insignificant.'' Spies are nothing but bureaucrats with deep cover. The shadowy world of espionage is, in fact, a ``self-serving sham.''
The man who made those charges last week - former CIA mole for Moscow, Aldrich Ames - is not exactly a spotless source. His role in the ``sham'' will earn him a life sentence. But there is no denying that his criticisms have resonated uncomfortably with many government officials in Washington. Long insulated from public scrutiny and open legislative pressure, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now coming under more sustained attack than at any time since prying congressional hearings of the mid-1970s.
Few would go so far as Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York, who would break up the CIA and distribute its duties to various other agencies. But there is considerable sentiment on Capital Hill for making the United States intelligence budget public, at least in general terms. And, in the wake of the Ames case, Congress is considering legislation intended to help protect against future moles as damaging as Ames apparently has been.
``The nation cannot afford to let this situation continue,'' said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, at a hearing May 3 on US counterintelligence.
Lawmakers are particularly curious as to how Ames could have banked millions of Moscow's dollars and lived like a minor suburban potentate without attracting counterintelligence attention. Many say that lack of real cooperation between the CIA and FBI, which both have counterintelligence duties, was a major reason.
Tuesday, President Clinton signed an executive order intended to end friction between these often-competitive agencies. Among other things, the directive establishes a new National Counterintelligence Policy Board, which will report directly to the National Security Council.
This move is unlikely to mollify critics such as Senator DeConcini. A bill drafted by the Senate Intelligence panel chairman would put the force of law behind FBI-CIA cooperation, ensuring no future president could undo it with a stroke of a pen. It would also give the FBI primacy over the CIA in certain areas, such as certain high-level spy investigations.
CIA chief James Woolsey opposes the DeConcini bill, calling it ``badly drafted.'' DeConcini, for his part, attacked Mr. Woolsey in unusually personal terms at a meeting with defense reporters. He derided Woolsey as a ``Washington lawyer,'' an ``insider'' who protects a complacent old-boy culture at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters.
At a recent session with the same group, Director Woolsey declined to respond to DeConcini's characterization, though his jaw did appear to clench when the subject was raised.
BESIDES moving to increase cooperation with the FBI, the CIA is carrying out a number of internal changes as a result of the Ames case, Woolsey said. Data bases are being cut up into more compartments so that most single individuals will not have as much access as Ames did. The agency is deemphasizing the importance of polygraphs - which Ames was able to fool. CIA officials are also exploring ways they can increase their access to the financial records of government employees. Currently, Woolsey said, his ability to check the bankrolls of his spies is more limited than one might think.
Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional instability, and the rise of international organized crime means that there is a continued role for a US intelligence agency in the post-cold-war era, the CIA chief insisted. ``This sort of devil's brew of problems is not just some abstract foreign policy concern,'' he said.
Intelligence is taking its budget whacks just like other activities, Woolsey said. Current plans call for intelligence spending to be about 23 percent smaller at the end of this decade than it was at the beginning, he said.
Snooping out nuclear weapons programs and guarding against Chinese crime groups is all well and good, but it cannot match the great Soviet-American spy wars of the past. The CIA is perhaps still searching for its proper size and role in the post-cold-war era - and Congress this year seems set for more public oversight of this reshaping than it has exercised in the past.