THE Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gets blamed for lots of things. Many people think it controls their minds. Others are sure the agency murdered Elvis. Still others are certain that it knows all about those UFOs they saw at Mt. Rushmore last year - and just isn't telling.
These people write in, demanding documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The law says the CIA must treat them just like working historians or journalists. Problem is, they're clogging the system. "The UFO requester is the most tenacious kind we have to deal with," sighs Jack Wright, CIA information and privacy coordinator.
Conspiracy theorists are only one part of the CIA's problems these days. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the object of greatest attention for US spies has disappeared. The new administration has ordered that hefty cuts be made in the intelligence budget. Yet there's lots for the watchers to watch: Geopolitical events, if anything, are growing more unpredictable.
The demise of the Soviet regime "has revealed a world in some ways more dangerous, more perplexing, more uncertain, and more challenging than it was before," said Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey in rare open testimony to Congress earlier this spring.
Not everyone in Washington thinks the CIA, with its cloak-and-Uzi image, is now the right part of government to handle US intelligence-gathering tasks. Sources of information are more open today, this theory goes, making the CIA's special talents unneeded.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, for one, has proposed breaking up the CIA and handing most of its job to the State Department. Other lawmakers are pushing for deeper cuts in intelligence spending than the $7 billion reduction over the next five years that the White House has planned. Though the figure is officially secret, total spending on the US intelligence community (which includes military intelligence organizations) is currently estimated to be about $28 billion.
Intelligence officials do not deny that the agency needs to be reshaped. They claim they have made a start. Among other things, the number of CIA analysts looking at the former Soviet Union has been cut in half. Overall plans call for a reduction in the number of US intelligence employees of around 18 percent by 1997.
The CIA is even shifting some resources from looking at the possibility of global war to studying global warming. An intelligence officer in charge of the environment, democracy, and other global issues has been added to the National Intelligence Council, the high-level panel that oversees CIA estimates.
Still, it is the large geopolitical problems that dominate the US intelligence agenda. Tracking the command and control of the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union is the top priority. Potential nuclear powers remain important intelligence problems, among them them North Korea and Iran. US policymakers are also intensely interested in the political faceoff between India and Pakistan, as both nations already have atomic arsenals.
One top agency official says he looks at the world today as a 3-D chessboard. On one level are traditional military problems; on another is economic competition. A third level represents transnational problems such as the environment and refugee flows.
"Politics in this world will be much more surprising," says Joseph Nye Jr., chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
IT is the economic part of the equation that presents the CIA with perhaps its most acute challenge. Clinton officials say over and over again that national prosperity is the foundation of security. If that's the case, why not use the CIA in the aid of American business, and use it to gather economic intelligence?
Our allies do it, after all - though many of them had signed bilateral agreements that they wouldn't. The French government's apparent recent attempt to penetrate US aerospace corporations is but the latest example of something that has gone on for years. Throughout the cold war the US took a low-key attitude when it identified such actions. Now it's every spook for himself.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," said a senior intelligence official in a recent meeting with reporters.
Some high Clinton administration officials, as well as senior members of House and Senate intelligence oversight committees, want the US to respond in kind. The intelligence community itself is leery. Gathering economic intelligence, broadly defined, is already a CIA task. But industrial espionage is something the CIA doesn't want to do, though the agency is studying the issue.
Of course the conceit that all intelligence work requires the wearing of a trench coat is somewhat misleading. Much of what the CIA does is analysis - the gathering and sifting of both open-source and clandestine information. And fully two-thirds of CIA analysis is relatively mundane "tactical" intelligence - background on Somali clans, for instance, or biographies of important foreign officials.
Improved dissemination of such information is an important intelligence issue. One proposal the CIA is studying involves an interactive computer screen on policymakers' desks connected by fiber-optic cable to Langley. Government officials could then pull what they wanted to see from intelligence data bases, rather than having it pushed upon them in the form of daily printed classified pages.