Countering Spy vs. Spy

WHEN it comes to counterespionage, neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation has always covered itself in glory.

But members of the Senate Intelligence Committee should not use past failures to justify consolidating counterintelligence activities in just one agency, the FBI - or at its most extreme, abolishing the CIA entirely.

The senators' anger, vented in hearings this week, is understandable. Last week former senior CIA official Aldrich Ames pleaded guilty to charges of spying for the Russians during his tenure.

As details of the highly damaging case became public, even those whose acquaintance with cloak-and-dagger activities is limited to a few good paperbacks had to ask themselves: ``Why did it take so long for them to figure it out?''

Yet the FBI has had its share of gaffes: It failed to hang on to Edward Lee Howard, who in 1985 escaped to the Soviet Union from his New Mexico home while it was under FBI surveillance.

President Clinton has taken what could be a more practical approach by signing an executive order that tries to force the dueling agencies to cooperate more closely.

The National Security Council will oversee a counterintelligence center and advisory board that includes top-level representatives from the CIA and FBI. The FBI will be responsible for important operational activities and will supply the center's first director. But after the first director's term expires, the directorship will rotate among the CIA, FBI, and military intelligence units.

The order also provides for cross-staffing and joint training among the agencies' counterintelligence offices.

The president's approach has more appeal than giving the entire responsibility to the FBI, which has not shown itself to be infallible. And it undercuts efforts by some lawmakers to use the Ames case in their calls to abolish the CIA. Such a move would be a critical mistake. At a period where international crises are more dispersed, the need for adequate intelligence-gathering multiplies, not vanishes.

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