WASHINGTON — DERRING-DO in the US spy business has developed a bad reputation in recent years. The excesses of the Iran-contra affair, plus unsavory aspects of CIA involvement in Central America, have made top government officials leery of covert actions intended to influence events overseas.
But this reluctance may soon change into something like guarded enthusiasm, if the director of the Central Intelligence Agency has his way.
''The US needs to maintain and perhaps even expand covert action as a policy tool,'' said CIA chief John Deutch earlier this week. Such cloak-and-dagger activity, proponents argue, could be a useful tool in the battle against international crime, drug dealers, and terrorists.
A reemphasis on covert action would mean a major shift in CIA culture, which currently places greater value on analyzing events than trying to influence them. It could also rekindle an old Washington debate: Are covert actions compatible with the principles of democracy?
To critics, the price of secret missions is simply not worth the cost to America's reputation. ''The successes have been very minor, and the negative consequences have been enormous,'' charges Roger Hilsman, a retired have been enormous,'' charges Roger Hilsman, a retired Columbia University professor and former US espionage official.
Neither director Deutch nor other officials in the US intelligence community appear to be advocating a return to the days when ''covert action'' was a synonym for ''paramilitary.'' It does not appear likely that a CIA-trained and funded army will soon land on the shores of Cuba in an attempt to oust President Fidel Castro Ruz, as it did at the Bay of Pigs.
Instead, the CIA may wish to offer US policymakers another way to deal with the often-complex threats of the post-cold-war world, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and global alliances of criminals.
Mr. Deutch, in a speech at the National Press Club, defined ''covert action'' as ''those activities the CIA undertakes to influence events overseas that are intended not to be attributable to this country.'' He said CIA operatives wouldn't undertake such missions without the approval of ''the highest levels of government'' or without ''timely notification'' to congressional oversight committees.
A first step would be the rebuilding of US covert action capability - people, secret communications, front companies capable of hiding money transfers, etc. ''Most of the best people don't go into covert action anymore,'' notes Roy Godson, author of a forthcoming book on the subject and coordinator of the Washington-based Consortium for the Study of Intelligence.
Furthermore, US officials must be careful not to consider covert actions as silver bullets that will make their problems disappear. To be effective, covert actions will have to be part of an overall, long-term strategy addressing a threat such as Colombian drug cartels. Secret missions need to mesh with overt diplomacy.
''Too often we have used covert action as a substitute for policy,'' says Godson, who still believes that covert action capability should be maintained ''as one of the potential arrows in our quiver.''
In fact, history is replete with examples of covert actions that were a successful part of an overall diplomatic strategy, according to Godson. He points to the early, secret efforts of French kings in support of the rebellious American colonies - and to Britain's efforts to sway American public opinion and policy at the beginnings of both World Wars.
The modern record of covert action is less distinguished, claims Professor Hilsman. A major US clandestine operation kept the shah of Iran on his throne - only to be overthrown some years later. US operations in Central America have had some narrow success but only at great cost to the US reputation in the region, he says.
''The temptation is very great'' for government officials to approve such action, says Hilsman, who was an official of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's forerunner. ''You run up against these very intractable problems, and you wish something could happen. Then the CIA comes along, and says, 'We can make it happen.'''
But ''it always gets found out,'' claims Hilsman, ''and it blackens your reputation.''
In an article in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Hilsman also argues that the intelligence community should pull out of espionage entirely and focus on analysis and esoteric methods, such as spy satellites and wiretaps.