Events in Iran and Afghanistan threaten the progress of Congress toward a strong and balanced charter to support and control the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. The public steam long ago went out of the effort to seek fundamental legislation checking the kind of CIA abuses exposed during the Watergate years -- and helping the CIA overcome the deficiencies found in the performance of its vital intelligence work. All credit to those legislators, such as chairman Bayh of the Senate intelligence committee and chairman Huddleston of the subcommittee working on the charter, who have been plugging away of the politically thankless task of producing a responsible document. It would be a setback for the nation if the cold-warlike reverberations of events abroad were to undercut the charter legislation or worse, as some in the House apparently favor, to abandon it and unleash the CIA.
The Carter administration has not abandoned its support of a charter. But it has for some time been seeking a dilution of previous reform legislation. It is important that such matters not be considered piecemeal but as part of the kind of far-reaching charter originally envisioned.
Indeed, the Senate subcommittee is reported to the close to agreement with the White House on a charter that would address points the White House has raised. A key one would reduce the number of congressional committees to be informed of CIA covert activities -- that is, efforts to manipulate events rather than simply gather intelligence. Now the information is supposed to go to the intelligence, budget, armed services, and foreign affairs committees in both houses -- a total of eight. The opposed alternative would be to directly inform just the two intelligence committees, which could then pass selected information to other committees.
It is argued that informing the eight committees has a chilling effect on covert activities because of the possibility of leaks. Yet a close observer says congressional staffers have been notably closemouthed, any leak is as likely to come from the executive branch, and it is not known what actual activities might have been forgone.
The danger is that leaving the information to just two committees could co-opt them, like "watchdogs" of the past, by making them such a part of the system. Against this it can be noted that members of the intelligence committees are limited to six-year terms. Thus fresh watchdogs and presumably questioning ones would always be coming in.
Perhaps a reduction of congressional oversight could be accomodated if the effort to permit some covert activities without presidential authorization is successfully resisted. The history of US problems from covert activities -- including the bygone CIA intervention in Iran itself -- is such that the public must be assured that the president is accountable for any further adventures and that these be justified as essential to national security. Indeed, there must be no loss of the requirement early opposed for the charter that written documentation be kept on every controversial action all the way up to the president.
The present charter proposals appear to be weaker in some respects than those in the past. It would be unrealistic not to expect some trade-offs in the process of obtaining agreement. One reason the persistent chartermakers can look forward to few political points is that the results tend to leave neither civil libertarians nor the back-to-cloak- and-dagger enthusiasts satisfied.
One rule on which the line should be held is the banning of the use of newsmen as CIA agents -- rather than simply providing guidelines to restrict their use. Informing the American people is hampered when correspondents abroad are under constant suspicion of being CIA plants. Another necessity is safeguarding Americans overseas from unlawful surveillance by the CIA.
Of fundamental importance is categorically prohibiting any CIA role in overthrowing democratic governments. This has reportedly not been decided yet, though prohibitions on assassination, torture, and other forms of violence are properly in place.
As the charter-writing process continues, all concerned ought to adhere to the line Jimmy Carter campaigned on last time: "Intelligence is a service to allow foreign policy to be based on more complete information. The function of the intelligence agency should be to provide the service, not to overthrow governments or make foreign policy unilaterally or in respect."