Cabinet Rank for CIA Would Distort Its Role

IT is a thoroughly bad idea to give cabinet rank to John Deutch, President Clinton's nominee to be the director of central intelligence (DCI). He should not be the equal of the secretaries of state and defense. The proper role of the secretaries and of the president is to make policy. The proper role of the DCI is to provide the factual basis on which a policy can be constructed.

One of the reasons for having the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the first place was to provide independent intelligence analysis by an agency with no bureaucratic commitment to a given policy. The only time the DCI had cabinet rank -- William Casey in the Reagan administration -- the commitment to a policy was so great that it resulted in the Iran-contra scandal.

The secretaries of state and defense are among the officials who are supposed to oversee the CIA. That job is difficult, at best, and it becomes more difficult if the DCI is the equal and not the subordinate of the secretaries. Two recent incidents, one in France and one in Guatemala, provide clear evidence of the difficulty and importance of oversight.

The problem in France was blown somewhat out of proportion by surfacing during a French political campaign. But this underlines the importance of the basic question: What is appropriate clandestine collection of economic intelligence? Most economic data is published; there is no need for clandestine collection. Valuable information that is not published includes negotiating positions with respect to trade agreements. It's appropriate to collect this.

What's not appropriate is industrial espionage -- trying to learn trade secrets of foreign businesses. Is Volkswagen developing a more fuel-efficient engine? Is Matsushita on the verge of a computer breakthrough? Such intelligence would be of great interest to the United States automobile and computer industries. But the CIA ought not to collect it for them. Would the CIA share it with all US companies, or would it play favorites? How far can this activity go without creating a business-intelligence partnership?

An in-between area has to do with sales by foreign companies and governments in third countries. Suppose there is bribery, to the disadvantage of US companies competing in that market. Should the CIA try to find out? Should the CIA try to learn the details of sales strategies or bids on contracts? Before we start down this road, we need to think where it leads.

The affair in Guatemala is a good deal more serious. A member of the Guatemalan military is said to have been responsible for the death of a US citizen and of a Guatemalan guerrilla fighter married to a US citizen. We do not know the details, but it appears that the officer was a paid informant of the CIA. This is not the same thing as an employee. For years, the CIA in Guatemala has been required to find out what has been going on in the continuing war between the Army and guerrilla groups. Police forces pay stool pigeons in criminal gangs. So it is with the CIA.

If this were all there was to the matter, it would be unexceptional. But there's more -- at least enough to warrant the several investigations now under way. The CIA might have known of its informant's complicity in the first murder at the time it occurred and lied about it to the US ambassador. Later, the State Department joined the CIA in trying to cover up the Guatemalan Army's involvement in both murders. The lame excuse is that they were protecting intelligence sources. More likely they were trying to protect themselves, an ignoble objective.

What little we know about the Guatemala affair is due to the efforts of Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. The Torricelli revelations point to a glaring failure of intelligence oversight by Congress. What is Congress going to do about it? And what is Mr. Deutch going to do to help?

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