Paris. -- The controversy reawakened by Robert M. Gates' nomination to become Director of Central Intelligence inspires thought on more than Mr. Gates' fitness for that office. We need an intelligence service, but do we need the CIA?
Mr. Gates' troubles -- they are President Bush's troubles as well -- derive from an unanswered but absolutely fundamental question about the agency's obedience to the law when William Casey was its director. Did it or did it not defy the expressed will of Congress that no military aid be supplied to the Nicaraguan contras?
Mr. Casey was one of the architects of the scheme by which the Reagan White House begged money from other governments and sold arms illegally to Iran in order to finance the contras, despite the congressional ban. If the officers of the CIA, including Mr. Gates, knew what their director was doing, and took part in the secret program, they acted in a manner subversive of the Constitution.
A standard of strict obedience to the law and apolitical professional conduct is even more important to an intelligence agency than to the military services of a democracy, since the legitimate secrecy in which such an agency works is easily turned against congressional and public oversight. An intelligence agency is very hard to control. It is even harder to reform. For this reason the most practical reform of the CIA today, now that the Cold War has waned, could well be the ultimate reform: to shut it down and put something else in its place.
There will never be a better opportunity. The Cold War is what the agency was all about, and the Cold War, as such, no longer is a serious concern. The CIA is 44 years old, which means that its organizational arteries are hardened and its character set. The enthusiasm and idealism of the early years are burned out; routine, careerism and ideology survive. It could be a very sensible course to shake hands all around, and turn the Langley headquarters over to the General Services Administration.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., has proposed placing intelligence back under the State Department. This makes sense. The back-room analysts would work as well for State as for the CIA, and would have more comfortable relations with their academic colleagues.
A staff and capacity for paramilitary operations already exist under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that is where such things belong. It is both British and French practice. Special-operations units exist in the services (the British SAS Regiment and Special Boat Service, the French 11th ''Shock'' Regiment, etc.), which are made available for intelligence service use.
One of the operationally compromising characteristics of the CIA over the years has been its combination of ''action'' with intelligence-gathering. The intelligence too often has been cooked to suit the programs of the more glamorous and bureaucratically powerful ''action'' side. The unforgivable example of this was the Bay of Pigs. The agency had really convinced itself -- and the White House -- that putting 1,500 men into a Cuban beachhead could provoke a popular uprising capable of overturning Fidel Castro.
In this writer's view, political operations and political warfare could and should simply be shut down. This is an area in which I was involved in the 1950s, and I would argue that then, and certainly now, U.S. interference in other peoples' elections, colonial wars and internal government struggles has done more harm than good.
Over the years it has compromised friends of the United States, alienated allies, given arguments to the country's enemies, and created for the U.S. its reputation as universal manipulator and conspirator. Radio Free Europe and the Congress for Cultural Freedom were sound programs. But even the latter was carried on far too long, and backfired when the CIA's sponsorship was eventually revealed.
Electronic intelligence already has its own agency, the NSA. The military have the Defense Intelligence Agency. There remains classical ''human'' intelligence, meaning spies in place, foreign agents capable of providing information not accessible through ordinary diplomatic contacts and political observation and analysis. This task could be assigned to a successor agency, a new bureaucratic start -- small and bright, with a focus on the future and no organizational legacies or nostalgia. It might be put under the State Department (the British way; their secret service is controlled by the Foreign Office), or under the Executive Office.
The latter is the way American postwar intelligence started. When the wartime OSS was broken up in 1945, research and analysis went to the State Department and the paramilitary services to the War Department, with an intelligence synthesizing and coordination staff (the Central Intelligence Group) under the president.
This system collided with powerful forces of bureaucratic aggrandizement and rivalry, but failed mainly because the dawning Cold War seemed to demand a big and powerful independent agency to wage it. That was four decades ago. The Cold War is all but over now. There are new problems. It could be useful -- and prudent -- for the country to try a decentralized intelligence service.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.