DURING the cold war, most of the United States' intelligence effort was focused on the Soviet Union and its allies. The collapse of the Soviet state has led many to question whether America still needs a large intelligence establishment and if so, what it should do.
This is not a matter of ''covert action,'' much of which has been of dubious value in advancing US policy. Any new role should focus on collection and analysis of information from all sources: diplomatic and government reporting, the press, business analysis, spy satellites, and yes, spies.
The US was in the intelligence game long before the cold war. The current structure, with a Central Intelligence Agency supplementing and drawing together the work of other government agencies, dates, essentially, from 1947. It was a direct result of the worst American intelligence disaster of the century: the failure to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor when Navy, Army, and other intelligence existed that should have told policymakers exactly what Japanese strategists were up to.
In a nuclear era, another Pearl Harbor-type mistake could be America's last. That's why the intelligence community is so necessary to national security, even in the absence of a Soviet Union.
Nuclear weapons and materials are still out there - weapons that could be used by hostile states or terrorist groups to attack or blackmail the US and its allies. Drug smugglers and terrorists who are no friends of democracy often compete with national governments for power. Commercial rivals try to steal patents and technology. US military forces deployed around the world - near the Balkans, for example - need up-to-the-minute information about real or potential hostile moves.
That's not to say the intelligence community doesn't need to improve and adapt; it does. How it should do so was the focus of hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington recently, at which senior officials of the State, Defense, and Energy Departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified. Some suggestions emerged that make sense:
* Intelligence analysts and policymakers need to work more closely together to set priorities so that analysts are giving policymakers the information they need when they need it. Analysts should specifically work to support US diplomacy, while intelligence-collection abroad needs better coordination by diplomatic chiefs of mission. Feedback from policymakers to analysts needs strengthening so analysts know whether they are serving their clients.
* Analysts should make better use of the ever-increasing economic information available from open sources. But the intelligence community should focus on the kinds of intelligence-gathering and analysis it does best - usually political and military - and not duplicate the wealth of economic and business analysis available in the public domain and from other US and foreign-government agencies.
* Ability to detect and counter industrial espionage should be strengthened.
* Quality, not quantity, should be the yardstick for rewarding and promoting intelligence analysts.
* Information should not be so highly classified or compartmented that it can't be shared with the official or soldier who needs it most.
A major source of information for the intelligence community is Foreign Service reporting. So it's ironic that moves are under way to cut the State Department budget in ways that would reduce the number of Foreign Service reporting officers abroad. That would be a false economy and potentially dangerous.
Intelligence analysts and policymakers must coordinate better to
meet new threats.