WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the Aldrich H. Ames spy case, the U.S. intelligence community is increasingly embattled, criticized by current and former intelligence officials for failing to cope with its weaknesses and with a changing world.
Some even wonder whether the CIA will be able to hang on to its preeminent status after a half-century of helping shape U.S. involvement in the world.
As a result, CIA Director R. James Woolsey appears to be in the deepest trouble of all the Clinton administration's top foreign policy officials. Many insiders believe that he will be the first to go if President Clinton reshuffles his national security team after this week's midterm congressional elections.
"The community is very, very fragile right now," said a former ranking intelligence officer. "Until serious changes are made and Woolsey attacks the problem head-on, U.S. intelligence faces hard times and the danger of being nibbled to death -- on the budget, Ames and its mission."
Mr. Woolsey, who oversees all U.S. intelligence outlets, has won some of the CIA's fights, most notably in preventing further congressional cuts of the $28 billion intelligence budget. But he is losing the broader battle to reform and redefine intelligence goals and functions in the post-Cold War world, according to sources both in and outside the agency.
In an interview last week, Mr. Woolsey defended himself and praised the CIA's roles in the recent Iraq, Haiti and North Korea crises. He also argued that the intelligence mission has been defined but is difficult for outsiders to grasp because it is more amorphous than in the Cold War era.
"The world we're in is one of a number of different and occasionally interacting intelligence challenges, several of which are quite deadly: international terrorism, rogue states, the potential for chaos -- all of which need to be addressed," he said.
By tracking corruption and bribery in foreign business dealings, the CIA is even responsible for aiding U.S. business, he said.
"The diversity of the mission and the need for flexibility in responding to it is dissatisfying to people who for 50 years have been involved in either a hot war or a cold war," Mr. Woolsey said.
Some high marks
Not all the U.S. intelligence world is under fire. The analytical branches of U.S. intelligence still get high marks. Indeed, some in Washington believe that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may even have bought Mr. Woolsey some extra time in the job because Baghdad's massing of troops on Kuwait's border was nipped in the bud, in part through CIA warnings to the White House.
"If you talk to folks in the White House on the economic side or about some specific crises, they feel pretty well served," a senior U.S. official said. "The problem arises when you ask if that means they support the agency. The usual response is that they don't think much of it overall."
Talk about demoralization inside the multifaceted U.S. intelligence community is now open and widespread. And symptomatic of the CIA's turmoil is the persistent problem of the ultrasecret wing of covert espionage, the Directorate of Operations or so-called spy shop, which has defied control by either Mr. Woolsey or congressional oversight committees, according to insiders and former intelligence officials.
For these and other reasons, some contend that the CIA, in particular, no longer has the support or standing it enjoyed in earlier eras.
Worse than Church probe
Stansfield Turner, the last CIA director to hold office during a Democratic administration, said he believes that "the agency is much more beleaguered now than it was, even after the Church committee disclosures in 1975-76 or after the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987."
(The Senate intelligence committee, then headed by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, uncovered widespread CIA excesses, including the use of assassination against foreign leaders and illegal wiretapping and spying on Americans.)
Mr. Turner said that one of the agency's problems is the reluctance of its officials "to punish their own," but he acknowledged that the attitude "has been there since intelligence operations began."
As CIA director under President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Turner created an internal furor in the 1970s by sacking or retiring dozens of operatives and their managers. But the culture is so pervasive that the urge to circle the wagons when the CIA is under attack has persisted.
"I thought a new and younger group would turn it around," he said. "But it didn't happen."
Mr. Woolsey has not been helped by the chorus of recent criticism, including last week's Senate report on the Ames case, which condemns the CIA almost as much for the handling of that espionage debacle as for its laxity during the nine years Ames spied for Moscow. Ames, who pleaded guilty after his arrest in February, is serving a life sentence.