FOUR years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Intelligence Agency is still looking for something to do - and it is still nibbling around a couple of areas that it generally ought to avoid. These are law enforcement and economics. Both areas are murky, but both have lines that the CIA ought not to cross.
The basic law creating the CIA is clear. The National Security Act of 1947 provides: ''The Agency shall have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions.'' In almost half a century, this law has been amended many times, but the language remains an expression of the historic American antipathy to a national police force, especially one that operates in secret. (J. Edgar Hoover created such a force in the FBI while Congress wasn't looking, but that's another story.)
The intelligence community has operated on the basis that the FBI chases foreign spies in the United States and the CIA goes after them abroad. This distinction was never as clear in practice as it was on paper, and now it is even fuzzier.
We are worried less about foreign spies and more about terrorists, drug traffickers, and a general category that CIA director John Deutch calls ''international criminals.'' These people, of whatever nationality, move themselves, their money, and sometimes their bombs from country to country in blithe disregard of national boundaries.
Of them all, terrorists are the only new threat. Drug traffickers are not much different from the rum-runners of the Prohibition era. There have always been international criminals, people who operate across international borders or who flee from one country to another to escape arrest or prosecution or to dispose of stolen goods.
One prominent example is Robert Vesco, who is charged with massive securities fraud and is currently in Cuba. We don't need an intelligence agency to tell us where these people are; we just need diplomacy to get them extradited. Let us hope that nobody is thinking about a covert action to kidnap them.
Both the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency provided significant assistance to Colombian police in the operation that broke up the Cali drug cartel. That was a good thing to do. It suggests that perhaps the law ought to be amended to allow the CIA to give limited assistance to foreign law-enforcement agencies.
But this ought to be tightly controlled. The temptations to mischief are too great. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Some governments still make crimes of what most Americans would regard as unexceptional political activity. There are also formidable problems of bureaucratic coordination, especially between the DEA and CIA. The rivalry between the CIA and FBI in the United States became legendary, to the extent that it sometimes interfered with operations; we do not want the same ba ttles between the CIA and DEA abroad.
There is a practical reason for a cautious approach to CIA involvement in law enforcement: the bureaucratic cultures of intelligence and police agencies are quite different.
What about economics?
Economic intelligence is another area that suffers from lack of definition and from bureaucratic rivalry. Mr. Deutch has spoken cryptically of monthly meetings with ''officials involved with economic security and trade.'' We don't know who those officials are or what goes on in those meetings.
We do know that economics is increasingly important in foreign policy. The CIA has been collecting economic intelligence for years and so have the Treasury and State Departments, not to mention such agencies as Agriculture and Commerce, which are not even members of the intelligence community.
The US does not need more economic intelligence; it needs better analysis of what it has. That is a legitimate job for the CIA, which has no institutional ax to grind. It is doubtful that the CIA needs to collect more, or even any, economic intelligence.
What the CIA emphatically ought not to do is get into commercial - as distinguished from economic - intelligence. It ought not to spy on individual companies, and it certainly ought not to share the results of that spying with American companies. To be blunt about it, the CIA ought not to steal Volkswagen's plans for a new car and give them to General Motors.
That is a clear line that is easy to draw. It is also possible, though more difficult, to draw a line carefully circumscribing somewhat broader law-enforcement activities for the CIA. Staying within these lines ought not to be left to bureaucratic self-restraint.
New CIA director Deutch, scarcely six months on the job, is an outsider who looks like he's taking charge. But he's going to need help - and guidance - from the White House and Capitol Hill.