TWENTY years ago, in the wake of Watergate, the CIA was investigated by Congress for a series of transgressions running from drug experiments on unwitting subjects to plotting with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. Chairman Frank Church of the Senate Intelligence Committee called the agency ''a rogue elephant,'' and tried to parlay the scandal into a presidential candidacy. Once again, the chairman and presidential contender, Arlen Specter, is hauling the CIA before the Senate committee, this time to discuss its activities in Guatemala.
The larger question is: What impels the cloak and dagger people, remembering how they were hung out to dry 20 years ago, to go back to their highhanded ways of acting outside and sometimes in defiance of government policies? Part of the answer was given by James J. Angleton, the legendary counterintelligence chief, when he was asked before the Senate committee in 1975 why the CIA had retained deadly toxins that President Nixon had banned. Angleton's answer: ''It's inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government.''
If ''power tends to corrupt,'' as British historian Lord Acton said, then secret power tends to corrupt secretly. After the congressional exposures of the mid-70s, intelligence professionals acted as though awakening from a nightmare, wondering how they could have been involved in such stupidities, vowing it would never happen again. Yet, there is something seductive, almost hypnotic, about being able to run your own secret armies and airlines, maintain your own businesses, and bribe people working for other governments to be your spies -- and then deciding for yourself who else in the US government should be let in on your secrets.
It seemed natural for Director William Casey to supply arms to the Nicaraguan contras that Congress didn't want supplied and to help Oliver North when a shipment of missiles for Iran got stuck in Portugal. It was equally natural, evidently, after official subsidies for the Guatemalan military were suspended because of human rights violations, that the CIA should fill the payments gap. If the CIA wasn't playing by the rules, it was using its privileged secrecy to fulfill what it considered a higher cold-war mission: supporting Latin American regimes against left-wing threats. It seemed not to matter that the doctrine of supporting freedom fighters often landed the agency in the position of supporting murderous colonels against genuine freedom fighters.
In Guatemala, the agency's mistake, apparently, was trying to cover up the murder by its clients of an American and a Guatemalan insurgent married to an American who refused to take lies for an answer. In the initial stage of exposure, the CIA sought to retire behind a familiar defense of having to protect ''sources and methods.'' The ''sources and methods'' gambit derives from the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the CIA. A brief sentence in the act reads, ''The director of Central Intelligence shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure.''
It is reasonable enough that a spy operation should want to protect the identity of its spies, but, in time, ''sources and methods'' came to cover a multitude of activities. For many years reconnaissance satellites could only be referred to as ''national technical means'' on the theory that mentioning ''satellites'' might tell the Russians something they didn't know.
`SOURCES and methods'' becomes a somewhat complicated matter when used to protect criminals. For example, the FBI, pursuing Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana in a crime investigation in the 1960s, was asked by the CIA to lay off because Giancana was involved in a CIA conspiracy to try to assassinate Fidel Castro. As a CIA ''asset,'' Giancana qualified under ''sources and methods.'' The agency could not prevent another Mafia figure in the anti-Castro conspiracy, John Rosselli, from being called to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Rosselli was subsequently murdered. When the ''sources and methods'' blanket is spread over criminals, even murderers, one begins to wonder.
The CIA station chief in Guatemala City, the one who delayed telling even the American ambassador about the involvement of Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez in the murders, was recalled to Washington. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said President Clinton was ''not satisfied with the information we have at this point.'' So what's the name of the offending station chief? Well, that's a secret: ''sources and methods,'' of course.