Webster's CIA

THEY used to say amusedly of Bill Casey in Washington that he was the only senior government official who didn't need a scrambler for his secret telephone conversations. Mr. Casey used to speak in a kind of gravelly-voiced, slurring accent that often made his conversation difficult to decipher. He had favorite words that he persistently mispronounced with total lack of embarrassment. ``Nicaragua,'' for example, was always ``Nicka-wagga-wa.'' And even when you could understand him, he used to delight in half-sentences and cryptic phrases that were especially intended, I always suspected, to obfuscate when testifying before prying congressional committees. Thus, when accused of not having informed a congressional committee of some controversial Central Intelligence Agency action, Casey could always go back and point to some piece of mumbled language that seemed incomprehensible when delivered. In retrospect, he used it as evidence that he had, at the time, told Congress what he was doing.

Now the CIA has a new boss, William Webster, who has taken over at one of the intelligence agency's low points. In other countries, governments manage to conduct their intelligence operations with relative discretion. But in the United States, the CIA has been taking a drubbing in the press and in books. Many of its secret dealings - and misdeeds - have been exposed in congressional testimony. Some of its agents have been exposed and their usefulness impaired.

Bill Webster, the head of an intelligence agency which seeks to work secretly, must be out and about, repairing the CIA's image with press and public, reassuring Congress that his agency can be trusted, and refurbishing its credibility with foreign intelligence agencies goggle-eyed at the loquaciousness of Americans about their spy network.

Webster is a circumspect man for whom the publicity, one suspects, is not particularly attractive. He is starting off carefully, but he has none of Casey's flair and enthusiasm for guile and trail-covering. When he doesn't want to talk about something, Webster simply won't talk about it. When he is prepared to give you an answer, he is straightforward and direct.

He is careful not to criticize his predecessor. He is specific in praising the talents of many CIA officers.

But there is to be a new philosophy and perhaps nothing captures it more accurately than Webster's remark that he is looking for ``risk-takers, not risk-seekers'' to man the agency's ranks.

In other words, Webster doesn't want wild men like Oliver North who cut corners and take the law into their own hands. He does want men (and women) of initiative and courage who will engage in spycraft with innovation and daring when so required to do.

This approach troubles some who think Webster is too puritanical and strait-laced. They think he may hobble the CIA's covert operations. He makes it clear he certainly isn't going to sanction operations that break the law or run counter to declared US foreign policy. But he has no problem with clandestine operations that either ``resist or support insurgencies'' when that action is in line with policy.

That includes violent action, including lethal, where necessary. It may involve temporarily withholding information from congressional leaders when human life is at stake.

But he believes aggressiveness and imagination in the conduct of his agency's work must be based on a ``principled approach to what you're doing.''

Webster believes strongly that the CIA should be an information-gatherer, and an estimate-giver, but not a policymaker. Hence he does not sit as a member of the Cabinet. The new CIA chief has set up a committee of senior agency officers to review proposed covert operations. There are new procedures to audit operations. There is more consultation with Congress. And any credible allegations of lawbreaking by CIA officials will be followed up.

Clearly, there is a very different tone to the new leadership of the CIA, compared with the Casey era.

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