The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been taking a bad rap for recruiting assorted thugs and other undesirable characters to furnish it information about certain foreign governments.
Yes, it has had such characters among its agents. But, if you are in the business of collecting information, you have to go where you can find it. Specifically, if you want to know about a brutal army, such as the one in Guatemala until reform came (we hope) quite recently, the people who know most about that army are those who serve in it.
Police departments commonly do much the same thing without attracting adverse comment. They use stool pigeons to learn what criminal organizations are doing so as to break up the gangs and put the members in jail. The goal of the CIA is not to break up an army but only to learn how it operates.
What gets the CIA in trouble is not what it does to collect this information but what it does afterward. Too often it has done nothing.
Both police informers and CIA agents are motivated by money and the hope of preferred treatment in the future.
The police informer hopes for a reduced sentence, or maybe no sentence at all; and there is at least an implied, possibly an explicit, understanding to this effect. But he is under no illusions as to what the police think about him.
On the other hand, a Latin American colonel recruited by the CIA to report on what his colleagues are up to may feel flattered that he is important enough to attract the CIA's attention. He may take it as a subtle sign of American support, even when such support does not exist.
But cases abound in Central America in which the support has existed, both from the CIA and from the whole US government. Sometimes the support has gone so far as covert CIA assistance for the military to achieve its position of power in the first place.
A share in military brutality
In these circumstances, it is hard to divorce either the American government or the CIA from a measure of responsibility when the military brutalizes the civilian population. Escape from responsibility becomes particularly difficult when the CIA's agent in the military reports that his colleagues have murdered x number of political opponents or restless peasants and the CIA does nothing about it. It is reasonable to suppose that an agent would take the absence of any remonstrance to mean at least acquiescence.
What ought to happen, or should have happened, in these cases is that the agent's reports of military murders should have been passed on to the ambassador and the State Department. Steps should then have been taken to dissociate the United States from the government in question. This did not always happen. Sometimes the CIA did not transmit the agent's reports to the State Department. Sometimes the State Department received the reports but chose to look the other way. Here lies the root of our problems in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, among other countries.
New guidelines for recruiting
The CIA was not wrong in recruiting assorted cutthroats to sell it information. Where it went egregiously and inexcusably wrong was in not sharing the information it received from these agents with the State Department and with ambassadors in the countries where the abuses occurred. Partly the CIA acted out of an excessive concern for protecting sources and methods. Partly it acted because its officers had gotten too close to their agents.
There are some new guidelines at the CIA designed to limit recruitment of agents involved in human rights violations. More important, the new policy is aimed at ensuring regular review of the value of the information that all agents supply. The reliability of many agents has long been suspect because: (1) there is a natural tendency to say what the agent thinks will impress his case officer; and (2) the CIA promotion system put a premium on the number of agents recruited.
Now the overall number of agents has been substantially reduced. This is a great step forward. But it leaves unanswered the question of why the CIA needs any agents in foreign military forces except in the most unusual circumstances.
Almost every American embassy has a complement of Army, Navy, and Air Force attachs. These are United States officers who are sent abroad with the open and avowed mission of collecting intelligence on foreign military services. They develop good personal contacts with foreign officers, and the information they get doesn't cost anything except possibly the price of lunch at the officers club.
Maybe we should try the old-fashioned direct approach and see what we get.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.