Lessons for US spy agencies

At a time when the Reagan administration is planning a major buildup in US intelligence capabilities over the next five years, it is vital that there be healthy competition and diversity in the intelligence-gathering process. The end result must be not just the mere collection of information - important as that is - but ensuring that conflicting viewpoints and analyses reach the nation's highest leaders so that the best national policy judgments can be made.

Events of the past several years have underscored the need for such diversity. Many questions remain to be answered, for example, about the adequacy of American intelligence regarding Iran, particularly the extent of popular opposition to the Shah. Had there been adequate contacts with Iranian dissident forces, US policy towards Iran might have been quite different than it was during the late 1970s.

An even starker example of the need for greater diversity in intelligence operations was spelled out in the CBS report on Vietnam last week. According to CBS, the top-level US military command in Vietnam suppressed and altered key intelligence information regarding enemy troop strength in the mid-1960s, even going so far as to reprogram computers. Both the CIA and military intelligence officers knew the information was wrong - in effect underestimating enemy strength by about half. Yet, according to the program, their counterviews did not reach President Lyndon Johnson or Congress until after the Tet offensive in early 1968 and after the American public had been repeatedly assured that victory was within reach.

US Vietnam commanders, including Gen. William Westmoreland, have denied the charges. The final historical record has still not been written. But the critical lessons of that period pinpoint the importance of providing the nation's highest political leaders with the widest possible sources of information. The lesson of Vietnam would also seem to touch on a related issue; namely, that presidents and Congresses have a responsibility to raise the right questions with the intelligence agencies. Finally, intelligence experts stress that it is the quality and integrity of intelligence work that is ultimately important, not just the amount of money spent on a particular spy operation. That means ensuring that intelligence reports not be ''sanitized'' or ''scrubbed up'' to convey a particular point of view before they are given to top officials.

In their 1980 political platform, Republicans promised that they would ''propose methods of providing alternative intelligence estimates'' and ''constructive competition'' within the US spy community. The White House would be well-served by ensuring fulfillment of that commitment.

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