LAPSES at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Aldrich Ames case were bad enough. Now we have further evidence of bungling in an agency vital to national security. Fortunately, its current director, John Deutsch, has bared the blunders and is moving with characteristic vigor to clean house.
Last week Mr. Deutsch told congressional oversight committees that an internal agency report reveals that for several years the CIA sent information to the president and other government officers that some CIA officials knew was tainted.
Ames worked as a Soviet ''mole'' at the CIA for almost 10 years, selling secrets. His treachery sent at least 10 CIA agents to their deaths, and blew the cover of at least 90 others. In many cases, the Soviet KGB turned these CIA sources into double agents, who then supplied KGB-created information to the CIA. In a time-honored spy trick, misinformation and disinformation were only gradually mixed in with genuine information.
The CIA caught on to the bogus data by 1991 or 1992. But believing it more important to disguise this discovery than to ensure the president got the best information possible, agency officials never warned US leaders that the information was compromised. The Pentagon spent billions of dollars on weapons systems based on flawed estimates of the Soviet military.
Mr. Deutsch, until recently the No. 2 man at the Pentagon, called it ''inexcusable.'' The CIA's inspector-general, Frederick Hitz, recommended that 12 people be disciplined. The only one still at the agency was reprimanded. Hitz also called three former directors - R. James Woolsey, Robert Gates, and William Webster - ''accountable'' for the mess.
The former directors, in an angry fax to Deutsch, said they knew nothing about the deception and shouldn't be held responsible. They wondered why the inspector-general hadn't brought the matter to their attention. Deutsch sided with his predecessors. He was right. A top manager is accountable for matters brought to his attention, but not for something he never knew - unless his ignorance itself resulted from negligence or mismanagement. More culpable in a case like this are the senior section heads and mid-level officials whose poor judgment caused tainted reports to be passed on without their superiors' knowledge.
Director Deutsch's record in government, as a straight-talking, no-nonsense administrator, should reassure the public that agency reforms will be forthcoming. He is cooperating with congressional oversight committees. And already he has taken steps to halt rogue operators.
The US, like any other major nation, needs a highly professional intelligence service. It must be flexible enough to be on top of the needs of the president and his team. But the CIA is, in the final analysis, a service agency, fulfilling Washington's quest for accurate information - not a secret sub-government serving its own ends.
The Pentagon spent billions on weapons systems because of flawed CIA reports.