Clinton Has Squandered a Chance to Reform the CIA

President Clinton's so-called reforms for the intelligence community will compromise the Central Intelligence Agency's ability to serve as an independent and objective interpreter of foreign events. They don't address the most serious systemic problem at the CIA - the need to separate the directorate of operations from its cold-war culture.

The president gets too much credit for the one progressive step he has announced (authorizing Congress to make public the bottom-line intelligence appropriation), which is required by the Constitution and was recommended by then-Sen. Frank Church 20 years ago.

The White House's most backward step is endorsement of a National Imagery and Mapping Agency at the Defense Department as a "combat-support agency." It would abolish the CIA National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC); the Pentagon would be responsible for analysis of all satellite photography.

Allowing the military to dominate this important field creates major risks. Imagery analysis has been used to calibrate the defense budget, to gauge the likelihood of military conflict in the third world, and to verify arms-control agreements.

It was the CIA's imagery analysis that determined that there was no bomber gap between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and no missile gap in the 1960s. CIA imagery analysts successfully battled Defense on sensitive military issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and CIA analysis led to the first strategic-arms treaty and the anti-ballistic-missile treaty in 1972.

More recently, CIA photo interpreters found a pattern of genocidal crimes in Bosnia, as well as covert Iranian arms shipments into that country. Both findings were embarrassing to the Clinton administration, which may explain the decision to abolish the NPIC. After all, the Nixon administration abolished the CIA's Office of National Estimates after a series of arms-control policy battles between the CIA and national-security adviser Henry Kissinger .

The White House also gave the CIA director the "right to concur" in the nominations of senior intelligence officials at other agencies, including the State Department. State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) has been the most independent and professional of the government's 13 intelligence agencies; allowing the CIA director to approve the head of INR would weaken the intelligence community's credibility and reduce the number of alternative judgments on national intelligence estimates.

The president's endorsement of the creation of an interagency committee on global crime at the National Security Council (whose members would include the attorney general and the CIA director) would blend spying and law enforcement. The National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, actually prohibits a CIA role in law enforcement. Any redefinition of the traditional roles for US spies could have implications for US citizens' civil rights.

Instead of reform and a fresh look at our intelligence needs, the White House has proposed a fig leaf for the CIA, one that does not address: (1) the proper role of espionage and covert action in the post-cold-war era; (2) the need for rigorous oversight; (3) reduced spending on intelligence; and (4) redundancy in the intelligence community. The president contributed to the CIA's problem last year when he gave director of Central Intelligence John Deutch a Cabinet seat, placing the director in a policy position. Since then, Deutch has marginalized the role of strategic intelligence, put CIA analysts at the beck and call of the Pentagon, endorsed more espionage and covert action, and approved the use of journalism as a cover for agents in "extraordinary" circumstances.

Clinton thus has squandered the first important opportunity for reform since the post-Watergate investigations of the CIA. From the standpoint of public policy, the end of the cold war and a stunning array of CIA failures have produced another opportunity for reform, but the White House has evaded the challenge. The antics of double agent Aldrich Ames and the failure of counterintelligence; the politicization of intelligence on the Soviet Union and the reliance on double agents for intelligence on the Soviet Union, East Europe, and Cuba; the coverup of terrorist activities in Central America; and the distribution to several presidents of "intelligence" obtained from Soviet double agents put in place by the KGB indicate that it is time to start over at the CIA. Congress and the American people should demand no less.

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