The Central Intelligence Agency is giving a medal to a covert operations officer that it fired five years ago for, among other things, misleading Congress. And Congress is not doing anything about it.
The protagonist in this case is Terry Ward, who was fired by then-CIA director John Deutch, himself no model for sticking to the rules. At the time, Mr. Ward was division chief for Latin America in the CIA's operations directorate. He had previously served in Guatemala and several other Latin American posts.
Ward withheld from Congress and the US embassy in Guatemala the relationship between the CIA and a Guatemalan colonel involved in the murders of an American citizen and a Guatemalan who was married to an American citizen.
This was during the period when the Guatemalan Army was terrorizing the countryside in a search for what it perceived to be subversive peasants.
The CIA was paying the colonel for information about which Army officers were doing what. It was not paying him to commit atrocities himself.
There were so many murders and disappearances in Guatemala in the early 1990s, when these occurred, that they might well have passed unnoticed if Jennifer Harbury, the American wife of one of the murder victims, hadn't raised a fuss in Washington.
Questions were asked. The CIA's answers, which Ward participated in framing, reported that the Guatemalan Army was responsible for the murders, but did not reveal (as required by law) that one of the guilty officers was a paid CIA informer.
Richard A. Nuccio, one of the few State Department employees who knew, went to then-Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, with the truth. Mr. Torricelli went to The New York Times.
At this point almost everybody failed miserably to do what needed to be done. Mr. Deutch, who should have told the committee himself, reacted as though Mr. Nuccio had done something bad. He lifted Nuccio's security clearance, effectively depriving him of a job.
The Intelligence Committee should have been outraged on two counts: (1) it had not been told earlier, and (2) the person who finally gave it the truth was himself punished.
But the committee did nothing.
Neither did Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who'd just seen the CIA director usurp her authority to approve her own employees' security clearances.
Then House Speaker Newt Gingrich should've defended the House's right to know.
Instead, he demanded Torricelli be thrown off the Intelligence Committee. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who controls Democratic appointments to the committee, refused. This made Mr. Gephardt, along with Torricelli, the only House members who behaved creditably.
Finally, after investigations by the CIA's own inspector general and by the independent President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Deutch fired Ward and another CIA officer.
Now Ward is getting the agency's Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. This tells the CIA bureaucracy that it need not take seriously the law about informing Congress. And it tells Congress to bug off.
If Congress again acquiesces in this contemptuous behavior, we might as well forget about oversight of the government's intelligence activities.
An uninformed Congress is an ineffective Congress. When it accepts less-than-truthful statements from the CIA, it can be sure that is all it will get except on the rare occasions the CIA perceives the truth to be in its interest.
The congressional backbone needs stiffening. It's bad enough the CIA violated the law; it's worse that Congress has let the agency get away with it.
It's important not to be diverted from this point into confused debate over how the CIA does its job overseas.
Much commentary has expressed shock that the CIA was paying a Guatemalan colonel involved in murder. From this, it has been falsely reasoned that the CIA itself was also involved.
Any police department can tell you that the way to find out what thugs are doing is to pay one of them to tell you.
Yet when the CIA does this, a cry is raised that this makes the CIA complicit with thuggery.
On the contrary, this is what police departments and intelligence services are supposed to do.
But they had better tell the city council - or Congress - when asked.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs. He is co-author of the forthcoming 'National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War,' (Temple University Press).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society