The intelligence agency is losing its smarts

Angelo Codevilla

March 26, 1993|By Angelo Codevilla

THE Clinton administration should reshape U.S. intelligence. We can get better intelligence for much less money.

In trying to fashion new missions in economic information-gathering, drug interdiction and peacekeeping, the Central Intelligence Agency is trying to avoid budget cutbacks by putting new titles on old doors. If the agency succeeds, our intelligence will be less useful than ever.

Like the administration, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee see intelligence as a servant of industrial policy. But the agency is ill-equipped to gather economic data and there are limits to such intelligence.

While the gain or loss of secrets may aid individuals, the wealth of nations depends on hard work and low taxes, not on financial secrets.

The agency is even less fit for undercover work against drug lords; that's the Drug Enforcement Administration job.

Similarly, the CIA isn't going to be much help in advising President Clinton whether or not he should intervene in the world's hot spots. If we can't already tell our enemies from our friends, secret information isn't going to help us.

President Clinton and R. James Woolsey, the new director of central intelligence, should prevent the agency from dominating American intelligence. Each part of the government should gather and analyze the secrets it needs. The CIA's proper role is to ensure that information gathered by each is available to all who need it, as well as to the president.

The agency works best as a clearinghouse for intelligence. Yet it hasn't even performed this task very well. It mostly provides group-think opinions, which are often thin on secrets relevant to the decisions at hand.

Analysts almost unanimously discounted the prospect of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and then, as Iraqi troops were digging in, almost unanimously thought Iraq was preparing to invade Saudi Arabia.

Aside from preventing the agency from venturing into new areas, the administration would do well to make substantial cuts. For starters, the CIA should get out of the secret agent business. We don't need several thousand members of the clandestine service stationed in U.S. embassies who are no better informed than any other Foreign Service employee. Fire 90 percent of them. Transfer the remaining 10 percent to the State, Defense and Treasury Departments, giving these establishments their own clandestine services.

These agencies should quietly hire trusted part-timers from the United States and abroad whose professional or business success gives them access to foreigners as well as the expertise to understand what they hear.

We also do not need our biggest and most expensive satellites. The Lacrosse, KH-11 and Magnum, for example, were designed to monitor nuclear arms from a bygone era. Other satellites -- electronic vacuum cleaners -- pull in increasingly worthless signals.

L Get rid of them and the small armies needed to service them.

The future of technical intelligence lies in placing specialized sensors near selected targets as well as in satellites that keep track of hostile military forces.

Most important, we do not need the tens of thousands of intelligence analysts here at home. To be sure, we should keep those who unglamorously sift through information, compile biographies of foreign leaders and assemble organizational tables of foreign groups.

But pink slips should go to the thousands of analysts who ponder the fate of Eastern Europe or the world's population. There are others in government who can supply that information just as well.

Covert operations, to the extent that they make sense, do so as part of the operating arms of the government, not as part of intelligence.

Turning the CIA into a presidential intelligence staff while tying collection and analysis to the actual work of the U.S. government

would yield better performance for less money.

Angelo Codevilla is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank.

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