WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Undoubtedly the upcoming hearings by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on President Bush's nomination of Robert M. Gates to be Director of Central Intelligence will focus on Gates' connection -- or lack of one -- in the Iran-contra Affair. But the real question that should concern his interrogators is how Mr. Gates would go about improving the accountability and efficiency of nation's intelligence community.
Numerous proposals for improvement in these aspects of our $30 billion-a-year intelligence apparatus were thrown on the table in the wake of William J. Casey's controversial reign at the Central Intelligence Agency. But most were opposed by the intelligence community and remain in limbo.
Under Casey and Mr. Gates -- then Casey's deputy -- the CIA conducted numerous covert operations that evaded congressional oversight and revived the image of the agency as ''rogue elephant.'' Moreover, Casey pressured CIA analysts to tailor the intelligence product to support specific policies advocated by the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
''Casey comes back here from the White House looking for reports to buttress his stand,'' one intelligence officer had complained. ''He does not ask for a review of an issue or a situation. He wants material he can use to justify controversial policy or expand the agency's involvement.''
In 1984, for example Mr. Reagan was convinced that Mexico would be the next domino to fall to the Communists if leftist revolutionaries successed in imposing their will in Nicaragua and El Salvador. John Horton, the national-intelligence officer for Latin America, angrily resigned after Casey rejected his less-alarming analysis of the situation in Mexico. ''Casey wanted an alarmist view of Mexico's stability to rationalize U.S. goals in Central America,'' Mr. Horton declared.
William H. Webster, Casey's successor, took steps to restore confidence in the CIA's product -- although its performance during the Persian Gulf crisis was uneven -- improved relations with the Congress and tamped down on the number of covert actions. But many of the reforms talked about when he took over in 1987, have not been implemented.
Some observers have described the CIA as too big, too bloated and too bureaucratized to function efficiently. To make American intelligence truly secret again, it has been suggested that the agency be downsized by spinning off such ''noisemaking'' functions as paramilitary operations to the Pentagon and propaganda to the U.S. Information Service or private foundations.
Other proposals call for improvements in accountability; Casey was notorious for his refusal to let the congressional intelligence committees in on the operations of his shadowy domain. Under questioning, he gave false testimony -- some prepared by Mr. Gates -- professed ignorance of key issues or simply mumbled inaudible replies. ''He wouldn't tell you if your coat were on fire unless you asked him a direct question,'' said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, a California Democrat.
There were also suggestions that limitations be placed on the National Security Council to prevent a successor to Lt. Col. Oliver North from using it as a base to launch covert operations similar to Iran-contra. Key staff people, such as the national security adviser, were to be made subject to Senate confirmation, to ensure closer cooperation with Congress.
Particular attention was focused on the director of central intelligence. It has been suggested that the DCI be given a fixed term of service -- usually mentioned is six years -- and that he be removed from direct participation in operations. At present, he serves at the pleasure of the president.
While the DCI would remain the president's intelligence adviser and head of the intelligence community, the day-to-day job of running the CIA would be given to another official on a level with the director of the FBI and chief of the National Security Agency. The concentration of both jobs in a single person has, it is argued, allowed presidents to secretly conduct foreign policy independent of the State Department and congressional consultation.
Yet, an independent observer must ask whether such reforms will result in improvements in the quality of intelligence and accountability. If past experience with the intelligence community is any guide, these attempts at bureaucratic reshuffling and organizational fine-tuning will be ineffective unless good judgment and common sense, rather than unquestioning obedience to presidential orders, are the bottom line.
No matter what flow charts are drawn, promises made, or legal restrictions imposed, presidents will continue to be frustrated by restraints imposed by the tensions between the rival foreign-policy baronies and are likely to seek an independent means of quick action. And if the White House is determined to follow such a course, someone will be found to carry it out. Ollie North's counterpart is always waiting in the wings.