HEN Adm. Stansfield Turner, President Carter's CIA director, tried to overhaul the agency after its scandals of the mid-1970s, he found that he was trying to ``manage an octopus,'' as he put it in his book. He found a culture among covert operators that resisted supervision and responded with active opposition to his efforts to get rid of bad apples.
Every once in a while some terrible scandal rocks the agency, and it is hung out to dry in investigations that greatly damage morale. Eventually the agency picks itself up, dusts itself off, and goes on. That's how it was and that's how it is in the cloak-and-dagger community.
So, no one should have been surprised when the CIA mountain, long in labor over the nine years of betrayal by Aldrich Ames, gave birth to a disciplinary mouse. For letting Ames operate for almost a decade as a KGB mole, ignoring all the signals he sent, 11 current and former officials were reprimanded by director James Woolsey. Apparently, the CIA is having enough trouble finding its post-cold-war mission and justifying a $28 billion budget without risking the kind of internal turmoil that followed Admiral Turner's housecleaning. This despite the fact that, as indicated in the inspector-general's report, the harm Ames did went far beyond the execution of agents in the Soviet Union. Of some 55 covert operations blown and some three dozen agents compromised by Ames, only about 10 are known to have been executed.
What happened to the others? For those who don't read spy novels, let me introduce you to ``doubles'' and ``dangles,'' part of the language of spyspeak. When a Russian is exposed to the KGB as a US spy, he may be ``doubled'' - turned against the United States. He is fed misleading information that seeps into US intelligence reports, creating the danger of miscalculation by policymakers. (A dangle is a version of the double - someone pretending to be our man, but actually theirs.)
When a spy network becomes a network for disinformation, the effect can be quite serious. The files of East Germany's security agency, the Stasi, inspected after German reunification, revealed that for years almost all of the people believed to be US agents in East Germany were actually double agents, feeding the CIA what the Stasi wanted fed.
Many of the Cuban agents enlisted by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro in the '60s turned out to be working for him - enabling him to uncover the plots and warn President Kennedy that assassination could be a double-edged sword. A Cuban defector in 1988 provided, from Cuban files, a complete list of what the CIA thought were its spies.
There was a moment of unwitting humor when Mr. Woolsey, in a briefing on the Ames episode, told reporters that the presence of three dozen agents in the Soviet Union testified to the CIA's success in penetrating the KGB and other Soviet agencies. Some success, considering that many of them were under Soviet control thanks to Soviet penetration of the CIA!
Should heads have rolled in the CIA for letting this all happen? Woolsey says, ``That's not the American way, and its not the CIA way.'' But the congressional oversight committees are not impressed with the CIA's way. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have openly expressed dissatisfaction with Woolsey's report. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio has called for his resignation. Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia is sponsoring a resolution calling for a congressionally mandated commission to investigate the CIA.
That would take us back to the mid-'70s, with the secret agency again in the public pillory. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.