OVER the nearly one-half century of cold war, the United States built history's biggest and most sophisticated espionage machine, its main task to protect the nation from its Soviet-led adversaries#.
But the former Soviet Union's demise and the emergence of new threats like global terrorism and organized crime pose profound questions about the future of the 14 loosely linked civilian and military agencies comprising the secret arm of the US government.
Calls for a reassessment gained urgency after the 1994 conviction of Soviet double agent Aldrich Ames and other scandals in the premier spy organization, the Central Intelligence Agency. Some critics demanded sweeping restructuring to eliminate mismanagement and other institutional problems; some urged that the CIA be dismantled and intelligence-gathering turned over to diplomats.
The debate enters a new phase this week, with hearings opening on Capitol Hill as lawmakers seek input for reform legislation. They received fresh food for thought last week with the release of the most comprehensive review of the intelligence apparatus since 1977.
The 16-month study notes that the US intelligence community has made vital contributions to national security. But, it says, intelligence agencies lack "direction" and are too isolated from the policymakers they serve. They also suffer from insufficient cooperation, "severely flawed" budget mechanisms, and bloated work forces unsuited to their tasks.
"Intelligence has been and remains invaluable," says former defense secretary Harold Brown, co-chairman of the 17-member Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the US Intelligence Community. "It can and must be improved, however, and it needs to be realigned to meet the new conditions."
The panel proposes changes in management practices, personnel policies, and the administration of the intelligence community's estimated $28 billion annual budget. But it proposes no massive realignments of the community's basic structure.
"We believe that what we have done is far more useful than ... essentially reshuffling boxes because the functions remain the same no matter where you put them," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, Mr. Brown's co-chairman.
Among its recommendations, the panel proposed giving the director of central intelligence (DCI) greater budgetary and management authority over the community. That idea has been promoted by John Deutch, head of the CIA.
The report found that while the DCI is by law charged with overseeing all intelligence functions, in practice he is limited because 85 percent of the community resides in the Defense Department.
Consolidating the DCI's power would allow him to devote his energies to eliminating mismanagement community-wide, the study says. To help the DCI, it urged creation of a new deputy CIA director who would oversee the agency's daily operations.
Other recommendations included:
*Creating a new "Consumers Committee" of high-level policymakers to periodically assess the quality of the intelligence they receive. A Cabinet-level committee on fighting global crime should also be formed.
*Introducing a one-year congressionally authorized period in which intelligence agencies would be allowed to offer generous separation deals and cut 10 percent of their work forces to free up funds for advanced-technology investments.
*Removing agent recruiting from military intelligence agencies and giving the CIA sole charge of that function.
*Allowing personnel in the CIA's most troubled arm, the Operations Directorate, to work in other areas to eliminate their isolation and secretive "culture."
As comprehensive as it is, the report has not stilled the debate. While praising the study, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, calls it "a starting point."
"There are some questions with whether the Brown commission has gone far enough," says Senator Specter, whose committee plans to draft reform legislation by early April.
Specter says that among other shortcomings, the report fails to adequately address the intelligence community's "biggest problem" of an "old boy network" embodying a culture of unaccountability.
Because of such attitudes, he says, the CIA failed to halt Mr. Ames from selling secrets to Moscow for nine years, knowingly gave "tainted information" to the president and other officials, and lied to lawmakers about what it knew about the 1990 murder of an American citizen in Guatemala.
Specter says that he would vest even more authority in the DCI than the report recommends and look at ways of reducing the secrecy that allowed the National Reconnaissance Agency, which builds US spy satellites, to accumulate a $2 billion "slush fund," the latest scandal to rock the community.
Other experts contend the study was flawed in more fundamental ways. They say its authors made their recommendations without first specifying and prioritizing the future threats facing the US and the specific intelligence required to combat them.
"What's missing is an overall discussion of what intelligence is," says Abraham Shulsky, a former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer and one-time defense official.
"We are coming off a 50-year period in which the community came into existence and grew. The real issue is what intelligence should be in the times we are coming into."