CIA's ability to police itself now being questioned

May 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Reeling from the treachery of one of its own, the CIA is also fighting a rear-guard action against adversaries in the U.S. government.

As it begins to ask itself why it took nine years to unearth a mole for Moscow, Aldrich H. Ames, and to assess the damage from the worst spy scandal in its history, the agency is coming in for criticism of a kind not heard since Watergate-era investigations in Congress showed that the CIA had spied on U.S. citizens and plotted to assassinate foreign leaders.

The new battles pit the CIA against the spy-catchers at the FBI and senior members of the congressional intelligence committees. Congress, looking at a globe changed utterly from the first Cold War days, when the CIA was born, is asking some basic questions about the agency's role.

"Do we need as much spying as before?" asked Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat who heads the House intelligence committee.

Predictably, some members of Congress have focused their anger about the Ames case at the director of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, an Arizona Democrat who is the head of the Senate intelligence committee, has lambasted Mr. Woolsey as a man protecting and defending the agency against change.

"Woolsey, instead of attacking the problem from within, is becoming defensive and trying to divert the attention," Mr. DeConcini said. "I don't want to use the word paranoia. But there's a feeling out there that the FBI's out to get them."

Mr. DeConcini praised CIA officers for doing "some very profound, dramatic things for the best interests of the United States." But, he added, "obviously something is severely broken out there."

The problems at the agency run deep, according to critics in the White House, the Pentagon, Congress and the agency itself.

They call its search for new and meaningful missions after the Cold War only partially successful. They say the CIA's analysts cannot always provide first-rate intelligence to policy-makers. Many wonder why the agency cannot do a better job analyzing public information instead of searching for secrets in the back alleys of the world.

And a government official who has regular dealings with the CIA says there are personnel problems at all levels. Recruiting superior young officers and analysts who can find better jobs in academia or law firms is increasingly difficult, while "the middle-career people in their 30s and 40s are bailing out," he said.

The agency's covert operators have been demoralized, say present and former CIA officers, by the confessions of Ames, the career CIA officer who pleaded guilty Thursday to selling out at least 12 highly valued secret agents the United States had inside the Soviet Union and East Europe. The hunt that captured Ames also exposed deep tensions between the agency and the FBI over counterintelligence, the business of catching spies.

This week, the CIA will face congressional hearings in which its power to police itself will be challenged.

In interviews and speeches, Mr. Woolsey politely declines to debate his critics in Congress and points to a myriad of changes, both contemplated and concrete, at the CIA.

He says he has worked to "restructure the intelligence community in the aftermath of the Cold War" and to create "somewhat closer and more consistent teamwork among the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Defense on counterintelligence matters." He has also taken to the airwaves and a number of public forums to explain and support intelligence work as the nation's first line of defense in a dangerous world.

This week, Mr. Woolsey said the agency had a new focus: international organized crime. "Latin American narcotics traffickers, ethnic Chinese organized crime groups, Italian organized crime, Nigerian criminal enterprises" and Russian gangs all are in the agency's cross hairs, he said.

The trouble with this new role of CIA officer as global cop is that the agency cannot act as a law-enforcement agency without violating its charter, nor can it give the FBI secret information that might be disclosed in court. As Mr. Woolsey said, there are "different mandates, different perspectives and different cultures in law enforcement on the one hand and intelligence on the other."

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