WASHINGTON — IN his last public appearance on Capitol Hill, former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey compared the CIA to a baseball scout whose mission it is to snoop on a rival team.
''We do the scouting reports. We try to get into the other team's training camp,'' Mr. Woolsey told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Jan. 10, just before his resignation took effect.''We also try to steal the other team's signals.''
But an apparent effort to do just that in Guatemala has landed the CIA in new trouble, even as it struggles to ride out what is perhaps already the most tumultuous era in its history.
For sure, the Guatemala case -- the alleged involvement of a paid CIA informant in two killings, including one American -- does not presently appear to be a scandal close to the same magnitude as that of Aldrich Ames, the CIA official arrested last year on charges of spying for Moscow in the agency's worst security breakdown.
But several former CIA officials and other experts predict serious fallout from the Guatemala case, including new pressure for post-cold-war reform of the agency. It may also give fresh impetus to demands for closer congressional scrutiny of the agency, even as it struggles to redefine itself.
''It's going to be a real blockbuster. This is not another Ames case or another covert action that was just stupid or immoral. This is a failure of [congressional] oversight,'' says Allen Goodman, a former CIA official now at Georgetown University here.
Mr. Goodman was referring to last week's admission by the CIA that it failed to keep congressional intelligence committees properly informed of what it knew about the alleged role of a Guatemalan officer in the murder of Michael DeVine, a US citizen.
The officer, Lt. Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was reportedly a paid CIA informant at the time of Mr. DeVine's slaying in 1990 by Guatemalan soldiers.
US officials also suspect Colonel Alpirez's complicity in the 1992 killing of Efrain Bamaca Velazquez, a leftist rebel, while in Guatemalan Army custody. Mr. Bamaca was married to a US lawyer. Alpirez denies any wrongdoing.
Senate Intelligence Committee members last week charged that the CIA may have deliberately ''misled'' or ''even lied to'' them about Guatemala.
''What this may show is that part of the culture in the CIA includes a disdain for oversight and a systematic effort to mislead Congress about sensitive activities,'' says Mr. Goodman.
''We may also be learning that the intelligence committees just can't do oversight. They can't look deep enough, they can't probe far enough, they can't read between the lines fast enough.''
Goodman suggests that in addition to internal CIA changes to enhance oversight, the committees could be merged and the staff allowed to work more closely with the agency.
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, CIA director in the Carter administration, concurs with warnings that increased oversight risks jeopardizing the lives of informants and the CIA's ability to recruit foreign operatives. But, he adds: ''The agency simply has to understand that the Congress demands its right to know what's going on.''
Former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, the head of a commission studying US intelligence organzations, says the Guatemala case may prompt his panel to review the CIA's informant recruitment guidelines.
''The nature of that business is that you are not dealing with boy scouts. We dealt with people in a certain kind of way because of the cold war. Maybe now that the cold war is over, we need to make some changes in that,'' Mr. Aspin told the Monitor.
Aspin says his panel may also look at ''liaison'' relationships the CIA maintains with foreign security services. It was such a link that allowed the CIA to aid the Guatemalan Army after the DeVine murder prompted the Bush administration to cut off overt US military assistance in 1990.
''There is something in this Guatemala thing that might affect some recommendation we'd make about the liaison relationships,'' says Aspin. His panel has until March 1996 to recommend reforms in the $28-billion-per-year US intelligence system.
Turner agrees that the CIA must deal with unsavory characters. But, he says, ''You have to make a decision in each individual case.''
The Guatemala case has already had embarassing consequences for the CIA. The Clinton administration has had to suspend US intelligence programs in Guatemala and recall the CIA station chief. It has ordered a government-wide search for evidence of any US complicity two killings.
The case has also ignited political wrangling. Speaker Newt Gingrich wants to oust from the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Robert Toricelli (D) of New Jersey, who disclosed Alpirez's alleged CIA links and the DeVine and Bamaca murders.
Whatever its outcome, the case could not have occurred at a worse time for the CIA. The agency is still repairing the damage from Mr. Ames and other problems.
It has also been largely leaderless since Woolsey departed and retired Air Force Gen. Michael Carns withdrew as President Bill Clinton's first nominee as his replacement. Clinton's new choice, Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch, is awaiting Senate confirmation.
But the CIA's greatest challenge remains redesigning its mission and structure. CIA officials admit that reform has only just begun. Testifying last week before the Senate intelligence committee, Adm. William Studeman, the acting CIA chief, spoke of a ''major redesign plan'' that ''will take years to implement.''