Catching Spies in the CIA

May 12, 1994

For once, the lead-off question at a U.S. Senate hearing got to the heart of the issue. The subject was catching traitors in the CIA, another governmental exercise in locking the barn door after the horse gets away. Sen. John Warner, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed there have been 10 attempts since the CIA was created in 1947 to get the intelligence agency and its bureaucratic rival, the FBI, to cooperate in catching double agents. Why should Congress believe the two agencies can get together now?

The Clinton administration's answer is an attempt to force cooperation between the nation's foreign intelligence arm and its principal domestic law enforcement agency. But this one has a considerable virtue: It places ultimate responsibility for effective detection of security problems in the White House. Two joint FBI-CIA operations would be responsible for protecting intelligence operations against foreign penetration of the type personified by Soviet/Russian double agent Aldrich H. Ames. A senior FBI official would head the CIA's counterintelligence department. The joint counter-intelligence operation would report directly to the president's national security adviser. So the buck would stop in the Oval Office, as it should.

There have been edicts before to cooperate, some signed by previous presidents, and even FBI agents ensconced at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Those measures didn't work, and for the same reason. Outsiders are frozen out of the information flow within the CIA, no matter where they sit. That's one reason Ames was able to operate long after there were clear warning signs. Louis Freeh, the new FBI director, says he is confident the administration's plan will overcome this decades-old problem. Senator Warner and his senior Democratic colleagues on the committee, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, are skeptical.

As well they should be. The administration's proposal was cobbled together in six weeks, record time for Washington, and signed by President Clinton just minutes before the Senate hearing. It's another bureaucratic compromise, properly strengthening the FBI's ability to ferret out traitors while preserving a role for the CIA in counter-intelligence. The senators want to legislate tighter controls. Yet there's no evidence legislation is any more effective than presidential edicts. What's needed is sincere cooperation among the professionals in the CIA and FBI. Their new directors seem to believe in it. Now they need to convince their subordinates they really mean it -- or else.

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