On the Other Hand, We Do Need the CIA

May 14, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

The failures of an intelligence agency are often more apparent than its successes. So it is with the scandal now enveloping the Central Intelligence Agency after the disclosure that CIA spymaster Aldrich Ames had secretly been on Moscow's payroll for years.

Ames' exposure has prompted much hand-wringing inside the administration, as well as calls in Congress for hearings on why the agency blundered so badly. The public deserves an accounting for a failure of this magnitude. Though such judgments are always difficult for outsiders to make, there seems little doubt the Ames fiasco represented one of the worst security breaches in the CIA's 45-year history.

Beyond that, however, there also appears to be a mood abroad to punish the agency by reining in its budget, particularly in order to slow development of a new generation of classi- fied spy satellites. One wonders if this isn't overkill.

CIA director James Woolsey has warned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yet the agency's political support from the White House seems lukewarm at best, and Mr. Woolsey could well be crying in the wilderness.

It is necessary to distinguish clearly the need for sweeping personnel and management reforms at the agency from its mandate to keep abreast of technical advances in the gathering of intelligence. Most of the agency's failures -- and they are egregious -- involve human error in misinterpreting or ignoring crucial facts and thereby reaching wrong conclusions.

The failure to predict the collapse of communism, the failure to recognize Saddam Hussein's intentions in Kuwait and the subsequent overstating of his military capabilities, the botched Somalia raid in search of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the failure to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran -- the list is long and discouraging. The costs have been exorbitant.

The agency has been criticized not only for these failures, but for the arrogance and hubris it displays despite its abysmal record. If Aldrich Ames wanted to live high on the hog, it was certainly in part because the corporate culture of the CIA encouraged such ambitions. The agency has a well-deserved reputation for flaunting its affluence that has earned it nearly as many enemies at home as it has abroad.

When one considers this sad legacy, the temptation is to dismiss the whole enterprise of spying as a dangerous and futile exercise in self- delusion. The reaction is to cut, cut, cut -- even things such as spy satellites, which, for all their limitations, actually work pretty much as they're supposed to.

Mr. Woolsey's spirited defense of the agency has not endeared him to Sens. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, or Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., chairman of the Appropriations Committee. They wanted to trim or at least hold the line on the CIA budget. Mr. Woolsey instead proposed a $1 billion increase, much of it earmarked for speeding development of a new generation of spy satellites.

Instead, Congress cut $300 million from the agency's budget. And Senator DeConcini made no secret of his desire to see the CIA reform its personnel and management systems. He used the budget battles this year to fire a symbolic shot across Mr. Woolsey's bow.

Yet one now wonders whether the relatively successful satellite intelligence programs will fall victim to the zeal for a long-overdue housecleaning of the agency's personnel and management systems. That would be a mistake.

Yes, the Cold War is over. But the world remains an exceedingly dangerous place. While the U.S. no longer faces a monolithic global adversary, the new geopolitical fault lines are in many ways even more fragile and unstable than the superpower rivalry just ended. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among Third World nations and increasing ethnic violence in many parts of the world today all hold the potential to threaten U.S. interests in novel and unpredictable ways.

That is why accurate intelligence is still the nation's first line of defense -- and why upgrading the technical capabilities of U.S. spy satellites ought to be an urgent priority. There may never be a way to guarantee political leaders won't misinterpret or ignore intelligence they don't like. But we ought to at least ensure that the technology for collecting it keeps up with the times. It would be short-sighted indeed to jeopardize that capability by political tit-for-tat over the Ames affair.

E9 Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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