WASHINGTON — Every couple of decades, it seems, our intelligence community faces some kind of crisis.
In the mid-'70s, Congress and the press ripped away the cloak of secrecy that had hidden the CIA assassination plots, National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping on left-leaning Americans, and FBI harassment of civil rights leaders. And the cloak-and-dagger agencies were hung out to dry.
Their failures, like miscalculating Soviet strength, became public knowledge. Even their successes often turned sour. Governments were overthrown in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile to be succeeded by repressive regimes. The Mujahideen guerillas in Afghanistan were aided by the CIA in expelling the Soviets, only to create a generation of anti-American terrorists.
The current crisis is less human than technological. Satellite imaging, once so secret that it was officially referred to only as "unilateral technical means of detection," is no longer an American government monopoly. Europe, Canada, India, and Israel also have satellites that can read license plates from 400 miles in space. And now an American company, Space Imaging Inc., will sell you pictures of anything you want. Well, almost anything. American law forbids selling space imagery to countries.
Along with the challenge to America's eye in the sky comes a challenge to America's big ear in the sky. As described by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine, the NSA has found itself unprepared for the era of Internet and fiber optics providing encryption techniques so far unbreakable.
The multibillion-dollar installation at Fort Meade, Md. - the budget figure is still a secret -failed to decode Indian communications that would have provided notice of India's nuclear test. Even the North Koreans are using decryption-proof cellphones bought in Europe.
For half a century, America's predominant position in the world has rested in part on the government's unique ability to see, hear, and decode what others were doing and planning. No longer. And there is some question whether that time will ever come again.
A world in which technology is no longer America's best friend becomes a more perilous world.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society